The Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Volume 2: Page1
Edgar Allan Poe (2008)
Produced by David Widger
THE WORKS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE
The Raven Edition
[Redactor's Note--Some endnotes are by Poe and some were added byGriswold. In this volume the notes are at the end.]
The Purloined Letter The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherezade A Descent into the Maelstroem Von Kempelen and his Discovery Mesmeric Revelation The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar The Black Cat The Fall of the House of Usher Silence--a Fable The Masque of the Red Death The Cask of Amontillado The Imp of the Perverse The Island of the Fay The Assignation The Pit and the Pendulum The Premature Burial The Domain of Arnheim Landor's Cottage William Wilson The Tell-Tale Heart Berenice Eleonora
THE PURLOINED LETTER
Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.
At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18-, I wasenjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in companywith my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, orbook-closet, au troisieme, No. 33, Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain. Forone hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while each, toany casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupiedwith the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of thechamber. For myself, however, I was mentally discussing certain topicswhich had formed matter for conversation between us at an earlier periodof the evening; I mean the affair of the Rue Morgue, and the mysteryattending the murder of Marie Roget. I looked upon it, therefore, assomething of a coincidence, when the door of our apartment was thrownopen and admitted our old acquaintance, Monsieur G--, the Prefect of theParisian police.
We gave him a hearty welcome; for there was nearly half as much of theentertaining as of the contemptible about the man, and we had not seenhim for several years. We had been sitting in the dark, and Dupin nowarose for the purpose of lighting a lamp, but sat down again, withoutdoing so, upon G.'s saying that he had called to consult us, or ratherto ask the opinion of my friend, about some official business which hadoccasioned a great deal of trouble.
If it is any point requiring reflection, observed Dupin, as heforebore to enkindle the wick, we shall examine it to better purpose inthe dark.
That is another of your odd notions, said the Prefect, who had afashion of calling every thing odd that was beyond his comprehension,and thus lived amid an absolute legion of oddities.
Very true, said Dupin, as he supplied his visiter with a pipe, androlled towards him a comfortable chair.
And what is the difficulty now? I asked. Nothing more in theassassination way, I hope?
Oh no; nothing of that nature. The fact is, the business is very simpleindeed, and I make no doubt that we can manage it sufficiently wellourselves; but then I thought Dupin would like to hear the details ofit, because it is so excessively odd.
Simple and odd, said Dupin.
Why, yes; and not exactly that, either. The fact is, we have all beena good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles usaltogether.
Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you atfault, said my friend.
What nonsense you do talk! replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain, said Dupin.
Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?
A little too self-evident.
Ha! ha! ha--ha! ha! ha!--ho! ho! ho! roared our visiter, profoundlyamused, oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!
And what, after all, is the matter on hand? I asked.
Why, I will tell you, replied the Prefect, as he gave a long, steadyand contemplative puff, and settled himself in his chair. I will tellyou in a few words; but, before I begin, let me caution you that thisis an affair demanding the greatest secrecy, and that I should mostprobably lose the position I now hold, were it known that I confided itto any one.
Proceed, said I.
Or not, said Dupin.
Well, then; I have received personal information, from a very highquarter, that a certain document of the last importance, has beenpurloined from the royal apartments. The individual who purloined it isknown; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it. It is known, also,that it still remains in his possession.
How is this known? asked Dupin.
It is clearly inferred, replied the Prefect, from the nature of thedocument, and from the non-appearance of certain results which would atonce arise from its passing out of the robber's possession; that is tosay, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.
Be a little more explicit, I said.
Well, I may venture so far as to say that the paper gives its holdera certain power in a certain quarter where such power is immenselyvaluable. The Prefect was fond of the cant of diplomacy.
Still I do not quite understand, said Dupin.
No? Well; the disclosure of the document to a third person, who shallbe nameless, would bring in question the honor of a personage of mostexalted station; and this fact gives the holder of the document anascendancy over the illustrious personage whose honor and peace are sojeopardized.
But this ascendancy, I interposed, would depend upon the robber'sknowledge of the loser's knowledge of the robber. Who would dare--
The thief, said G., is the Minister D--, who dares all things, thoseunbecoming as well as those becoming a man. The method of the theft wasnot less ingenious than bold. The document in question--a letter, tobe frank--had been received by the personage robbed while alone in theroyal boudoir. During its perusal she was suddenly interrupted by theentrance of the other exalted personage from whom especially it was herwish to conceal it. After a hurried and vain endeavor to thrust it ina drawer, she was forced to place it, open as it was, upon a table. Theaddress, however, was uppermost, and, the contents thus unexposed, theletter escaped notice. At this juncture enters the Minister D--. Hislynx eye immediately perceives the paper, recognises the handwritingof the address, observes the confusion of the personage addressed, andfathoms her secret. After some business transactions, hurried through inhis ordinary manner, he produces a letter somewhat similar to the onein question, opens it, pretends to read it, and then places it inclose juxtaposition to the other. Again he converses, for some fifteenminutes, upon the public affairs. At length, in taking leave, he takesalso from the table the letter to which he had no claim. Its rightfulowner saw, but, of course, dared not call attention to the act, in thepresence of the third personage who stood at her elbow. The ministerdecamped; leaving his own letter--one of no importance--upon the table.
Here, then, said Dupin to me, you have precisely what you demandto make the ascendancy complete--the robber's knowledge of the loser'sknowledge of the robber.
Yes, replied the Prefect; and the power thus attained has, for somemonths past, been wielded, for political purposes, to a very dangerousextent. The personage robbed is more thoroughly convinced, every day, ofthe necessity of reclaiming her letter. But this, of course, cannot bedone openly. In fine, driven to despair, she has committed the matter tome.
Than whom, said Dupin, amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke, no moresagacious agent could, I suppose, be desired, or even imagined.
You flatter me, replied the Prefect; but it is possible that somesuch opinion may have been entertained.
It is clear, said I, as you observe, that the letter is still inpossession of the minister; since it is this possession, and not anyemployment of the letter, which bestows the power. With the employmentthe power departs.
True, said G.; and upon this conviction I proceeded. My first carewas to make thorough search of the minister's hotel; and here my chiefembarrassment lay in the necessity of searching without his knowledge.Beyond all things, I have been warned of the danger which would resultfrom giving him reason to suspect our design.
But, said I, you are quite au fait in these investigations. TheParisian police have done this thing often before.
O yes; and for this reason I did not despair. The habits of theminister gave me, too, a great advantage. He is frequently absent fromhome all night. His servants are by no means numerous. They sleep at adistance from their master's apartment, and, being chiefly Neapolitans,are readily made drunk. I have keys, as you know, with which I canopen any chamber or cabinet in Paris. For three months a night hasnot passed, during the greater part of which I have not been engaged,personally, in ransacking the D-- Hotel. My honor is interested, and, tomention a great secret, the reward is enormous. So I did not abandonthe search until I had become fully satisfied that the thief is a moreastute man than myself. I fancy that I have investigated every nook andcorner of the premises in which it is possible that the paper can beconcealed.
But is it not possible, I suggested, that although the letter maybe in possession of the minister, as it unquestionably is, he may haveconcealed it elsewhere than upon his own premises?
This is barely possible, said Dupin. The present peculiar conditionof affairs at court, and especially of those intrigues in which D--is known to be involved, would render the instant availability of thedocument--its susceptibility of being produced at a moment's notice--apoint of nearly equal importance with its possession.
Its susceptibility of being produced? said I.
That is to say, of being destroyed, said Dupin.
True, I observed; the paper is clearly then upon the premises. As forits being upon the person of the minister, we may consider that as outof the question.
Entirely, said the Prefect. He has been twice waylaid, as if byfootpads, and his person rigorously searched under my own inspection.
You might have spared yourself this trouble, said Dupin. D--, Ipresume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipatedthese waylayings, as a matter of course.
Not altogether a fool, said G., but then he's a poet, which I take tobe only one remove from a fool.
True, said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff fromhis meerschaum, although I have been guilty of certain doggrel myself.
Suppose you detail, said I, the particulars of your search.
Why the fact is, we took our time, and we searched every where. I havehad long experience in these affairs. I took the entire building, roomby room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We examined,first, the furniture of each apartment. We opened every possible drawer;and I presume you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such athing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man is a dolt who permits a'secret' drawer to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is soplain. There is a certain amount of bulk--of space--to be accounted forin every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of aline could not escape us. After the cabinets we took the chairs. Thecushions we probed with the fine long needles you have seen me employ.From the tables we removed the tops.
Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece offurniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an article; thenthe leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and thetop replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are employed in the sameway.
But could not the cavity be detected by sounding? I asked.
By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient waddingof cotton be placed around it. Besides, in our case, we were obliged toproceed without noise.
But you could not have removed--you could not have taken to pieces allarticles of furniture in which it would have been possible to make adeposit in the manner you mention. A letter may be compressed intoa thin spiral roll, not differing much in shape or bulk from a largeknitting-needle, and in this form it might be inserted into the rung ofa chair, for example. You did not take to pieces all the chairs?
Certainly not; but we did better--we examined the rungs of everychair in the hotel, and, indeed the jointings of every description offurniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there beenany traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect itinstantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have beenas obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing--any unusual gapingin the joints--would have sufficed to insure detection.
I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the plates,and you probed the beds and the bed-clothes, as well as the curtains andcarpets.
That of course; and when we had absolutely completed every particle ofthe furniture in this way, then we examined the house itself. We dividedits entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so thatnone might be missed; then we scrutinized each individual square inchthroughout the premises, including the two houses immediately adjoining,with the microscope, as before.
The two houses adjoining! I exclaimed; you must have had a great dealof trouble.
We had; but the reward offered is prodigious!
You include the grounds about the houses?
All the grounds are paved with brick. They gave us comparativelylittle trouble. We examined the moss between the bricks, and found itundisturbed.
You looked among D--'s papers, of course, and into the books of thelibrary?
Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only openedevery book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contentingourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of ourpolice officers. We also measured the thickness of every book-cover,with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the mostjealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the bindings beenrecently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that thefact should have escaped observation. Some five or six volumes, justfrom the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, withthe needles.
You explored the floors beneath the carpets?
Beyond doubt. We removed every carpet, and examined the boards with themicroscope.
And the paper on the walls?
You looked into the cellars?
Then, I said, you have been making a miscalculation, and the letteris not upon the premises, as you suppose.
I fear you are right there, said the Prefect. And now, Dupin, whatwould you advise me to do?
To make a thorough re-search of the premises.
That is absolutely needless, replied G--. I am not more sure that Ibreathe than I am that the letter is not at the Hotel.
I have no better advice to give you, said Dupin. You have, of course,an accurate description of the letter?
Oh yes!--And here the Prefect, producing a memorandum-book proceededto read aloud a minute account of the internal, and especially of theexternal appearance of the missing document. Soon after finishingthe perusal of this description, he took his departure, more entirelydepressed in spirits than I had ever known the good gentleman before. Inabout a month afterwards he paid us another visit, and found us occupiedvery nearly as before. He took a pipe and a chair and entered into someordinary conversation. At length I said,--
Well, but G--, what of the purloined letter? I presume you have atlast made up your mind that there is no such thing as overreaching theMinister?
Confound him, say I--yes; I made the re-examination, however, as Dupinsuggested--but it was all labor lost, as I knew it would be.
How much was the reward offered, did you say? asked Dupin.
Why, a very great deal--a very liberal reward--I don't like to say howmuch, precisely; but one thing I will say, that I wouldn't mind givingmy individual check for fifty thousand francs to any one who couldobtain me that letter. The fact is, it is becoming of more and moreimportance every day; and the reward has been lately doubled. If it weretrebled, however, I could do no more than I have done.
Why, yes, said Dupin, drawlingly, between the whiffs of hismeerschaum, I really--think, G--, you have not exerted yourself--to theutmost in this matter. You might--do a little more, I think, eh?
How?--in what way?'
Why--puff, puff--you might--puff, puff--employ counsel in thematter, eh?--puff, puff, puff. Do you remember the story they tell ofAbernethy?
No; hang Abernethy!
To be sure! hang him and welcome. But, once upon a time, a certain richmiser conceived the design of spunging upon this Abernethy for a medicalopinion. Getting up, for this purpose, an ordinary conversation in aprivate company, he insinuated his case to the physician, as that of animaginary individual.
'We will suppose,' said the miser, 'that his symptoms are such andsuch; now, doctor, what would you have directed him to take?'
'Take!' said Abernethy, 'why, take advice, to be sure.'
But, said the Prefect, a little discomposed, I am perfectly willingto take advice, and to pay for it. I would really give fifty thousandfrancs to any one who would aid me in the matter.
In that case, replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and producinga check-book, you may as well fill me up a check for the amountmentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter.
I was astounded. The Prefect appeared absolutely thunder-stricken.For some minutes he remained speechless and motionless, lookingincredulously at my friend with open mouth, and eyes that seemedstarting from their sockets; then, apparently recovering himself in somemeasure, he seized a pen, and after several pauses and vacant stares,finally filled up and signed a check for fifty thousand francs, andhanded it across the table to Dupin. The latter examined it carefullyand deposited it in his pocket-book; then, unlocking an escritoire, tookthence a letter and gave it to the Prefect. This functionary grasped itin a perfect agony of joy, opened it with a trembling hand, cast a rapidglance at its contents, and then, scrambling and struggling to thedoor, rushed at length unceremoniously from the room and from the house,without having uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fillup the check.
When he had gone, my friend entered into some explanations.
The Parisian police, he said, are exceedingly able in their way.They are persevering, ingenious, cunning, and thoroughly versed in theknowledge which their duties seem chiefly to demand. Thus, when G--detailed to us his mode of searching the premises at the Hotel D--,I felt entire confidence in his having made a satisfactoryinvestigation--so far as his labors extended.
So far as his labors extended? said I.
Yes, said Dupin. The measures adopted were not only the best oftheir kind, but carried out to absolute perfection. Had the letter beendeposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyonda question, have found it.
I merely laughed--but he seemed quite serious in all that he said.
The measures, then, he continued, were good in their kind, and wellexecuted; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case, andto the man. A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with thePrefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts hisdesigns. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, forthe matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he. Iknew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the gameof 'even and odd' attracted universal admiration. This game is simple,and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number ofthese toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd.If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. Theboy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course hehad some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation andadmeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrantsimpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, 'arethey even or odd?' Our schoolboy replies, 'odd,' and loses; but upon thesecond trial he wins, for he then says to himself, 'the simpletonhad them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is justsufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will thereforeguess odd;'--he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degreeabove the first, he would have reasoned thus: 'This fellow finds that inthe first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose tohimself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd,as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest thatthis is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon puttingit even as before. I will therefore guess even;'--he guesses even, andwins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellowstermed 'lucky,'--what, in its last analysis, is it?
It is merely, I said, an identification of the reasoner's intellectwith that of his opponent.
It is, said Dupin; and, upon inquiring of the boy by what means heeffected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, Ireceived answer as follows: 'When I wish to find out how wise, or howstupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughtsat the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately aspossible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to seewhat thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match orcorrespond with the expression.' This response of the schoolboy lies atthe bottom of all the spurious profundity which has been attributed toRochefoucault, to La Bougive, to Machiavelli, and to Campanella.
And the identification, I said, of the reasoner's intellect with thatof his opponent, depends, if I understand you aright, upon the accuracywith which the opponent's intellect is admeasured.
For its practical value it depends upon this, replied Dupin; and thePrefect and his cohort fail so frequently, first, by default of thisidentification, and, secondly, by ill-admeasurement, or rather throughnon-admeasurement, of the intellect with which they are engaged. Theyconsider only their own ideas of ingenuity; and, in searching foranything hidden, advert only to the modes in which they would havehidden it. They are right in this much--that their own ingenuity is afaithful representative of that of the mass; but when the cunning of theindividual felon is diverse in character from their own, the felon foilsthem, of course. This always happens when it is above their own, andvery usually when it is below. They have no variation of principle intheir investigations; at best, when urged by some unusual emergency--bysome extraordinary reward--they extend or exaggerate their old modes ofpractice, without touching their principles. What, for example, in thiscase of D--, has been done to vary the principle of action? What isall this boring, and probing, and sounding, and scrutinizing with themicroscope and dividing the surface of the building into registeredsquare inches--what is it all but an exaggeration of the application ofthe one principle or set of principles of search, which are based uponthe one set of notions regarding human ingenuity, to which the Prefect,in the long routine of his duty, has been accustomed? Do you not see hehas taken it for granted that all men proceed to conceal a letter,--notexactly in a gimlet hole bored in a chair-leg--but, at least, in someout-of-the-way hole or corner suggested by the same tenor of thoughtwhich would urge a man to secrete a letter in a gimlet-hole bored ina chair-leg? And do you not see also, that such recherches nooks forconcealment are adapted only for ordinary occasions, and would beadopted only by ordinary intellects; for, in all cases of concealment,a disposal of the article concealed--a disposal of it in this recherchemanner,--is, in the very first instance, presumable and presumed; andthus its discovery depends, not at all upon the acumen, but altogetherupon the mere care, patience, and determination of the seekers; andwhere the case is of importance--or, what amounts to the same thing inthe policial eyes, when the reward is of magnitude,--the qualities inquestion have never been known to fail. You will now understand what Imeant in suggesting that, had the purloined letter been hidden any wherewithin the limits of the Prefect's examination--in other words, had theprinciple of its concealment been comprehended within the principles ofthe Prefect--its discovery would have been a matter altogether beyondquestion. This functionary, however, has been thoroughly mystified;and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that theMinister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All foolsare poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a nondistributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.
But is this really the poet? I asked. There are two brothers, I know;and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe haswritten learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician,and no poet.
You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet andmathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he couldnot have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of thePrefect.
You surprise me, I said, by these opinions, which have beencontradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naughtthe well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has longbeen regarded as the reason par excellence.
'Il y a a parier,' replied Dupin, quoting from Chamfort, 'que touteidee publique, toute convention recue est une sottise, car elle aconvenue au plus grand nombre.' The mathematicians, I grant you, havedone their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, andwhich is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With anart worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term'analysis' into application to algebra. The French are the originatorsof this particular deception; but if a term is of any importance--ifwords derive any value from applicability--then 'analysis' conveys'algebra' about as much as, in Latin, 'ambitus' implies 'ambition,''religio' 'religion,' or 'homines honesti,' a set of honorablemen.
You have a quarrel on hand, I see, said I, with some of thealgebraists of Paris; but proceed.
I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason whichis cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical.I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. Themathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoningis merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The greaterror lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called purealgebra, are abstract or general truths. And this error is so egregiousthat I am confounded at the universality with which it has beenreceived. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What istrue of relation--of form and quantity--is often grossly false in regardto morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untruethat the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also theaxiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives,each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equalto the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematicaltruths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But themathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as ifthey were of an absolutely general applicability--as the world indeedimagines them to be. Bryant, in his very learned 'Mythology,' mentionsan analogous source of error, when he says that 'although the Paganfables are not believed, yet we forget ourselves continually, and makeinferences from them as existing realities.' With the algebraists,however, who are Pagans themselves, the 'Pagan fables' are believed, andthe inferences are made, not so much through lapse of memory, asthrough an unaccountable addling of the brains. In short, I never yetencountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equalroots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faiththat x2+px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one ofthese gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believeoccasions may occur where x2+px is not altogether equal to q, and,having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach asspeedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock youdown.
I mean to say, continued Dupin, while I merely laughed at hislast observations, that if the Minister had been no more than amathematician, the Prefect would have been under no necessity of givingme this check. I know him, however, as both mathematician and poet,and my measures were adapted to his capacity, with reference to thecircumstances by which he was surrounded. I knew him as a courtier, too,and as a bold intriguant. Such a man, I considered, could not fail to beaware of the ordinary policial modes of action. He could not havefailed to anticipate--and events have proved that he did not fail toanticipate--the waylayings to which he was subjected. He must haveforeseen, I reflected, the secret investigations of his premises. Hisfrequent absences from home at night, which were hailed by the Prefectas certain aids to his success, I regarded only as ruses, to affordopportunity for thorough search to the police, and thus the sooner toimpress them with the conviction to which G--, in fact, did finallyarrive--the conviction that the letter was not upon the premises. Ifelt, also, that the whole train of thought, which I was at some painsin detailing to you just now, concerning the invariable principle ofpolicial action in searches for articles concealed--I felt that thiswhole train of thought would necessarily pass through the mind of theMinister. It would imperatively lead him to despise all the ordinarynooks of concealment. He could not, I reflected, be so weak as not tosee that the most intricate and remote recess of his hotel would beas open as his commonest closets to the eyes, to the probes, to thegimlets, and to the microscopes of the Prefect. I saw, in fine, thathe would be driven, as a matter of course, to simplicity, if notdeliberately induced to it as a matter of choice. You will remember,perhaps, how desperately the Prefect laughed when I suggested, upon ourfirst interview, that it was just possible this mystery troubled him somuch on account of its being so very self-evident.
Yes, said I, I remember his merriment well. I really thought he wouldhave fallen into convulsions.
The material world, continued Dupin, abounds with very strictanalogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has beengiven to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be madeto strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description. Theprinciple of the vis inertiae, for example, seems to be identical inphysics and metaphysics. It is not more true in the former, that a largebody is with more difficulty set in motion than a smaller one, and thatits subsequent momentum is commensurate with this difficulty, than itis, in the latter, that intellects of the vaster capacity, while moreforcible, more constant, and more eventful in their movements than thoseof inferior grade, are yet the less readily moved, and more embarrassedand full of hesitation in the first few steps of their progress. Again:have you ever noticed which of the street signs, over the shop-doors,are the most attractive of attention?
I have never given the matter a thought, I said.
There is a game of puzzles, he resumed, which is played upon a map.One party playing requires another to find a given word--the name oftown, river, state or empire--any word, in short, upon the motley andperplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game generally seeks toembarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names;but the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, fromone end of the chart to the other. These, like the over-largely letteredsigns and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of beingexcessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is preciselyanalogous with the moral inapprehension by which the intellect suffersto pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and toopalpably self-evident. But this is a point, it appears, somewhat aboveor beneath the understanding of the Prefect. He never once thoughtit probable, or possible, that the Minister had deposited the letterimmediately beneath the nose of the whole world, by way of bestpreventing any portion of that world from perceiving it.
But the more I reflected upon the daring, dashing, and discriminatingingenuity of D--; upon the fact that the document must always have beenat hand, if he intended to use it to good purpose; and upon the decisiveevidence, obtained by the Prefect, that it was not hidden within thelimits of that dignitary's ordinary search--the more satisfied Ibecame that, to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to thecomprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it atall.
Full of these ideas, I prepared myself with a pair of green spectacles,and called one fine morning, quite by accident, at the Ministerialhotel. I found D-- at home, yawning, lounging, and dawdling, as usual,and pretending to be in the last extremity of ennui. He is, perhaps,the most really energetic human being now alive--but that is only whennobody sees him.
To be even with him, I complained of my weak eyes, and lamented thenecessity of the spectacles, under cover of which I cautiously andthoroughly surveyed the whole apartment, while seemingly intent onlyupon the conversation of my host.
I paid especial attention to a large writing-table near which he sat,and upon which lay confusedly, some miscellaneous letters and otherpapers, with one or two musical instruments and a few books. Here,however, after a long and very deliberate scrutiny, I saw nothing toexcite particular suspicion.
At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon atrumpery fillagree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by adirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle ofthe mantel-piece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments,were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This lastwas much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across themiddle--as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely upas worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second. It had alarge black seal, bearing the D-- cipher very conspicuously, and wasaddressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D--, the minister, himself.It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, intoone of the uppermost divisions of the rack.
No sooner had I glanced at this letter, than I concluded it to bethat of which I was in search. To be sure, it was, to all appearance,radically different from the one of which the Prefect had read us sominute a description. Here the seal was large and black, with the D--cipher; there it was small and red, with the ducal arms of the S--family. Here, the address, to the Minister, diminutive and feminine;there the superscription, to a certain royal personage, was markedlybold and decided; the size alone formed a point of correspondence. But,then, the radicalness of these differences, which was excessive; thedirt; the soiled and torn condition of the paper, so inconsistent withthe true methodical habits of D--, and so suggestive of a design todelude the beholder into an idea of the worthlessness of the document;these things, together with the hyper-obtrusive situation of thisdocument, full in the view of every visiter, and thus exactly inaccordance with the conclusions to which I had previously arrived; thesethings, I say, were strongly corroborative of suspicion, in one who camewith the intention to suspect.
I protracted my visit as long as possible, and, while I maintained amost animated discussion with the Minister upon a topic which I knewwell had never failed to interest and excite him, I kept my attentionreally riveted upon the letter. In this examination, I committed tomemory its external appearance and arrangement in the rack; and alsofell, at length, upon a discovery which set at rest whatever trivialdoubt I might have entertained. In scrutinizing the edges of the paper,I observed them to be more chafed than seemed necessary. They presentedthe broken appearance which is manifested when a stiff paper, havingbeen once folded and pressed with a folder, is refolded in a reverseddirection, in the same creases or edges which had formed the originalfold. This discovery was sufficient. It was clear to me that the letterhad been turned, as a glove, inside out, re-directed, and re-sealed. Ibade the Minister good morning, and took my departure at once, leaving agold snuff-box upon the table.
The next morning I called for the snuff-box, when we resumed, quiteeagerly, the conversation of the preceding day. While thus engaged,however, a loud report, as if of a pistol, was heard immediately beneaththe windows of the hotel, and was succeeded by a series of fearfulscreams, and the shoutings of a terrified mob. D-- rushed to a casement,threw it open, and looked out. In the meantime, I stepped to thecard-rack, took the letter, put it in my pocket, and replaced it bya fac-simile, (so far as regards externals,) which I had carefullyprepared at my lodgings--imitating the D-- cipher, very readily, bymeans of a seal formed of bread.
The disturbance in the street had been occasioned by the franticbehavior of a man with a musket. He had fired it among a crowd of womenand children. It proved, however, to have been without ball, and thefellow was suffered to go his way as a lunatic or a drunkard. Whenhe had gone, D-- came from the window, whither I had followed himimmediately upon securing the object in view. Soon afterwards I bade himfarewell. The pretended lunatic was a man in my own pay.
But what purpose had you, I asked, in replacing the letter by afac-simile? Would it not have been better, at the first visit, to haveseized it openly, and departed?
D--, replied Dupin, is a desperate man, and a man of nerve. Hishotel, too, is not without attendants devoted to his interests. HadI made the wild attempt you suggest, I might never have left theMinisterial presence alive. The good people of Paris might have heardof me no more. But I had an object apart from these considerations. Youknow my political prepossessions. In this matter, I act as a partisan ofthe lady concerned. For eighteen months the Minister has had her in hispower. She has now him in hers--since, being unaware that the letter isnot in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if itwas. Thus will he inevitably commit himself, at once, to his politicaldestruction. His downfall, too, will not be more precipitate thanawkward. It is all very well to talk about the facilis descensus Averni;but in all kinds of climbing, as Catalani said of singing, it is farmore easy to get up than to come down. In the present instance I haveno sympathy--at least no pity--for him who descends. He is that monstrumhorrendum, an unprincipled man of genius. I confess, however, that Ishould like very well to know the precise character of his thoughts,when, being defied by her whom the Prefect terms 'a certain personage'he is reduced to opening the letter which I left for him in thecard-rack.
How? did you put any thing particular in it?
Why--it did not seem altogether right to leave the interior blank--thatwould have been insulting. D--, at Vienna once, did me an evil turn,which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember. So, asI knew he would feel some curiosity in regard to the identity of theperson who had outwitted him, I thought it a pity not to give him aclue. He is well acquainted with my MS., and I just copied into themiddle of the blank sheet the words--
'-- -- Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atree, est digne deThyeste. They are to be found in Crebillon's 'Atree.'