Charles Dickens.

The mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories online

. (page 60 of 103)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 60 of 103)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


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
faces ?

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 them-
selves away.



II.



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 par-
tition to that account, and that a I>ife 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 ex-
plaining 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 (][uantity 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. Imme-
diately 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. Adams ? "

" I think not, sir."

" I should have thought him a clergyman, but
for his having no Reverend here," said I.

" Probably, from 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, Mr. Adams ? "

" Merely a form of proposal, sir, and form of
reference."

" Recommended here ? 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 per-
sonal acquaintance, he would not trouble you."

" Did he know my name ? "

" Oh yes, sir ! He said, ' There is Mr. Samp-
son, I see ! ' "

" A well-spoken gentleman, apparently ? "

" Remarkably so, sir."

" Insinuating manners, apparently?"

" Very much so, indeed, sir."

" 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 ex-



MR. SLINKTON.



309



pression of face ; but still (I thought) requiring
everybody to come at him by the prepared way
he ofl'ered, 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 overdoing of the matter ;
happy in a thoroughly well-bred, perfectly un-
meaning way.

" I thought you had met," our host observed.

" No," said Mr. SHnkton. " 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 every-day
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."

" Oh dear no ! I am afraid I am not so
prudent as you pay me the compliment of sup-
posing 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 thou-
sand 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 "Yes."

"I hear, Mr. Sampson," he resumed pre-
sently, 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 I.

He laughed at my ready association of loss
with money, and replied, " No, in talent and
vigour."

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."

"Understand me, Mr. Sampson. I don't



imagine that you have retired. It is not so
bad as that. But Mr. Mcltham "

"Oh, to be sure!" said I. "Yes! Mr.
Meltham, the young actuary of the ' Inestima-
ble.' "

" 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 gentle-
man 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 infernal
" Not on the grass, if you please — the gravel."

" You knew him, Mr. Slinkton ? "

" 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 ? "

" About thirty."

" Ah ! " he sighed in his former consoling
way. " What creatures we are ! To break up,
Mr. Sampson, and become incapable of busi-
ness at that time of life ! — Any reason assigned
for the melancholy fact ? "

(" Humph ! " thought 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 point-blank.

" 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 reUnquished all his avo-
cations and all his prospects, because he was,
in fact, broken-hearted. A disappointed at-
tachment I heard, — though it hardly seems
probable, in the case of a man so distinguished
and so attractive."

" Attractions and distinctions are no armour
against death," said I.

" Oh, 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 I Lamentable, lamentable ! "

I still thought his pity was not quite genuine.



JIO



HUNTED DOWN.



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 announce-
ment of dinner :

" 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 suftered, and recently too,
from death myself. I have lost one of two
charming nieces, who were my constant com-
panions. 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
ef my sense. An observer of men who finds
hirnself steadily repelled by some apparently
trifling 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 col-
lege 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.

III.

On the very next day but one I was sitting
behind my glass partition, as before, when he
came into the outer othce, 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 slightest nature."

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 specialty about
assuring one's Ufe. You find it like will-making.
People are so superstitious, and take it for
granted they will die soon afterwards."

" 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 in-
tolerable 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



MR. SLINKTON ANSWERS A FEW QUESTIONS.



3"



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 different
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."

" Much obliged," 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 ? " said I,

" 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.
Shnkton ? " I asked.

" Beckwith."

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 Beck-
with. 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.

" Oh, of course ! " he answered, looking up
from the paper with a smile. " I meant they
were so many. But you do right to be par-
ticular. It stands to reason that you must be
particular. Will you allow me to use your pen
and ink ? "

"Certainly."

"And your desk ?"

" Certainly."

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.

Before answering each question he ran it over
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; tem-
perate 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. Good morning.

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
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.

IV.

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 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 appear-
ance 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 7vas possible, and I was strolling.

" Shall we stroll together ? "



312



HUNTED DOWN.



" With pleasure."

The young lady walked between us, and we
walked on the cool sea-sand, in the direction of
Filey.

" 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, laugh-
ing. " Margaret, my dear, tell Mr. Sampson."

" 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 Scarborough ? "

" 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 hable 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 man.

" Yes," said Miss Niner, " this really is my
shadow, uncle."

As the carriage approached us, and we ap-
proached 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-grey 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 minutes.

When I rejoined them Mr. Slinkton was the
first to speak. Indeed, he said to me in a
raised voice, before I came uj) 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. Samjjson."

" 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 ? "

" Never."

" 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 ob-
served 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 feel-
ingly pursued, " that it would be strange indeed
if the relations between us were cold or indif-
ferent. 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 droojD ! "

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 pre-
sently 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 cf
character, as to be a very tower for the support
of their weak natures while their poor lives
endured.



THE SHADOW IN JEOPARDY.



313



" I shall leave him, Mr. Sampson, very soon,"
said the young lady ; " I know my life is draw-
ing 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 long.

" 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 sea ? "

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 ? "

"Yes!"

" 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 ?"

"Yes!"

" 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
remorse ? "

" You terrify me, sir, by these questions ! "

" To save you, young lady, to save you ! For



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 60 of 103)