William Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) was an English novelist, playwright, and short story writer. His best-known works are The Woman in White (1859), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). The last is considered the first modern English detective novel. Born into the family of painter William Collins in London, he lived with his family in Italy and France as a child and learned French and Italian. He worked as a clerk for a tea merchant. After his first novel, Antonina, was published in 1850, he met Charles Dickens, who became a close friend, mentor and collaborator. Some of Collins's works were first published in Dickens' journals All the Year Round and Household Words and the two collaborated on drama and fiction. Collins published his best known works in the 1860s and achieved financial stability and an international reputation. During that time he began suffering from gout. After taking opium for the pain, he developed an addiction. During the 1870s and 1880s the quality of his writing declined along with his health.
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My Miscellanies, Vol. 2 (of 2)
CASES WORTH LOOKING AT.—I.
MEMOIRS OF AN ADOPTED SON.[A]
I.—Circumstances which preceded his Birth.
Towards the beginning of the eighteenth century there stood on a rock in the sea, near a fishing village on the coast of Brittany, a ruined Tower with a very bad reputation. No mortal was known to have inhabited it within the memory of living man. The one tenant whom Tradition associated with the occupation of the place, at a remote period, had moved into it from the infernal regions, nobody knew why—had 2 lived in it, nobody knew how long—and had quitted possession, nobody knew when. Under such circumstances, nothing was more natural than that this unearthly Individual should give a name to his residence; for which reason, the building was thereafter known to all the neighbourhood round as Satanstower.
Early in the year seventeen hundred, the inhabitants of the village were startled, one night, by seeing the red gleam of a fire in the Tower, and by smelling, in the same direction, a preternaturally strong odour of fried fish. The next morning, the fishermen who passed by the building in their boats were amazed to find that a stranger had taken up his abode in it. Judging of him at a distance, he seemed to be a fine tall stout fellow: he was dressed in fisherman's costume, and he had a new boat of his own, moored comfortably in a cleft of the rock. If he had inhabited a place of decent reputation, his neighbours would have immediately made his acquaintance; but, as things were, all they could venture to do was to watch him in silence.
The first day passed, and, though it was fine weather, he made no use of his boat. The second day followed, with a continuance of the fine weather, and still he was as idle as before. On the third day, when a violent storm kept all the boats of the village on the beach—on the third day, in the midst of the tempest, 3 away went the man of the Tower to make his first fishing experiment in strange waters! He and his boat came back safe and sound, in a lull of the storm; and the villagers watching on the cliff above saw him carrying the fish up, by great basketsful, to his Tower. No such haul had ever fallen to the lot of any one of them—and the stranger had taken it in a whole gale of wind!
Upon this, the inhabitants of the village called a council. The lead in the debate was assumed by a smart young fellow, a fisherman named Poulailler, who stoutly declared that the stranger at the Tower was of infernal origin. "The rest of you may call him what you like," said Poulailler; "I call him The Fiend-Fisherman!"
The opinion thus expressed proved to be the opinion of the entire audience—with the one exception of the village priest. The priest said, "Gently, my sons. Don't make sure about the man of the Tower, before Sunday. Wait and see if he comes to church."
"And if he doesn't come to church?" asked all the fishermen, in a breath.
"In that case," replied the priest, "I will excommunicate him—and then, my children, you may call him what you like."
Sunday came; and no sign of the stranger darkened the church-doors. He was excommunicated, 4 accordingly. The whole village forthwith adopted Poulailler's idea; and called the man of the Tower by the name which Poulailler had given him—"The Fiend-Fisherman."
These strong proceedings produced not the slightest apparent effect on the diabolical personage who had occasioned them. He persisted in remaining idle when the weather was fine; in going out to fish when no other boat in the place dare put to sea; and in coming back again to his solitary dwelling-place, with his nets full, his boat uninjured, and himself alive and hearty. He made no attempts to buy and sell with anybody; he kept steadily away from the village; he lived on fish of his own preternaturally strong frying; and he never spoke to a living soul—with the solitary exception of Poulailler himself. One fine evening, when the young man was rowing home past the Tower, the Fiend-Fisherman darted out on to the rock—said, "Thank you, Poulailler, for giving me a name"—bowed politely—and darted in again. The young fisherman felt the words run cold down the marrow of his back; and whenever he was at sea again, he gave the Tower a wide berth from that day forth.
Time went on—and an important event occurred in Poulailler's life. He was engaged to be married. On the day when his betrothal was publicly made known, his friends clustered noisily about him on the 5 fishing-jetty of the village to offer their congratulations. While they were all in full cry, a strange voice suddenly made itself heard through the confusion, which silenced everybody in an instant. The crowd fell back, and disclosed the Fiend-Fisherman sauntering up the jetty. It was the first time he had ever set foot—cloven foot—within the precincts of the village.
"Gentlemen," said the Fiend-Fisherman, "where is my friend, Poulailler?" He put the question with perfect politeness; he looked remarkably well in his fisherman's costume; he exhaled a relishing odour of fried fish; he had a cordial nod for the men, and a sweet smile for the women—but, with all these personal advantages, everybody fell back from him, and nobody answered his question. The coldness of the popular reception, however, did not in any way abash him. He looked about for Poulailler with searching eyes, discovered the place in which he was standing, and addressed him in the friendliest manner.
"So you are going to be married?" remarked the Fiend-Fisherman.
"What's that to you?" said Poulailler. He was inwardly terrified, but outwardly gruff—not an uncommon combination of circumstances with men of his class, in his mental situation.
"My friend," pursued the Fiend-Fisherman, "I have not forgotten your polite attention in giving me 6 a name; and I come here to requite it. You will have a family, Poulailler; and your first child will be a boy. I propose to make that boy my Adopted Son."
The marrow of Poulailler's back became awfully cold—but he grew gruffer than ever, in spite of his back.
"You won't do anything of the sort," he replied. "If I have the largest family in France, no child of mine shall ever go near you."
"I shall adopt your first-born for all that," persisted the Fiend-Fisherman. "Poulailler! I wish you good morning. Ladies and gentlemen! the same to all of you."
With those words, he withdrew from the jetty; and the marrow of Poulailler's back recovered its temperature.
The next morning was stormy; and all the village expected to see the boat from the Tower put out, as usual, to sea. Not a sign of it appeared. Later in the day, the rock on which the building stood was examined from a distance. Neither boat nor nets were in their customary places. At night, the red gleam of the fire was missed for the first time. The Fiend-Fisherman had gone! He had announced his intentions on the jetty, and had disappeared. What did this mean? Nobody knew.
On Poulailler's wedding-day, a portentous circumstance recalled the memory of the diabolical stranger, 7 and, as a matter of course, seriously discomposed the bridegroom's back. At the moment when the marriage ceremony was complete, a relishing odour of fried fish stole into the nostrils of the company, and a voice from invisible lips said: "Keep up your spirits, Poulailler; I have not forgotten my promise!"
A year later, Madame Poulailler was in the hands of the midwife of the district, and a repetition of the portentous circumstance took place. Poulailler was waiting in the kitchen to hear how matters ended up-stairs. The nurse came in with a baby. "Which is it?" asked the happy father; "girl or boy?" Before the nurse could answer, an odour of supernaturally fried fish filled the kitchen; and a voice from invisible lips replied: "A boy, Poulailler—and I've got him!"
Such were the circumstances under which the subject of this Memoir was introduced to the joys and sorrows of mortal existence.
II.—His Boyhood and Early Life.
When a boy is born under auspices which lead his parents to suppose that, while the bodily part of him is safe at home, the spiritual part is subjected to a course of infernal tuition elsewhere—what are his father and mother to do with him? They must do the best they can—which was exactly what Poulailler and his wife did with the hero of these pages. 8
In the first place, they had him christened instantly. It was observed with horror that his infant face was distorted with grimaces, and that his infant voice roared with a preternatural lustiness of tone the moment the priest touched him. The first thing he asked for, when he learnt to speak, was "fried fish;" and the first place he wanted to go to, when he learnt to walk, was the diabolical Tower on the rock. "He won't learn anything," said the master, when he was old enough to go to school. "Thrash him," said Poulailler—and the master thrashed him. "He won't come to his first communion," said the priest. "Thrash him," said Poulailler—and the priest thrashed him. The farmers' orchards were robbed; the neighbouring rabbit-warrens were depopulated; linen was stolen from the gardens, and nets were torn on the beach. "The deuce take Poulailler's boy," was the general cry. "The deuce has got him," was Poulailler's answer. "And yet he is a nice-looking boy," said Madame Poulailler. And he was—as tall, as strong, as handsome a young fellow, as could be seen in all France. "Let us pray for him," said Madame Poulailler. "Let us thrash him," said her husband. "Our son has been thrashed till all the sticks in the neighbourhood are broken," pleaded his mother. "We will try him with the rope's-end next," retorted his father; "he shall go to sea and live in an atmosphere of thrashing. Our son shall be a cabin-boy." It was 9 all one to Poulailler Junior—he knew who had adopted him, as well as his father—he had been instinctively conscious from infancy of the Fiend-Fisherman's interest in his welfare—he cared for no earthly discipline—and a cabin-boy he became at ten years old.
After two years of the rope's-end (applied quite ineffectually), the subject of this Memoir robbed his captain, and ran away in an English port. London became the next scene of his adventures. At twelve years old, he persuaded society in the Metropolis that he was the forsaken natural son of a French duke. British benevolence, after blindly providing for him for four years, opened its eyes and found him out at the age of sixteen; upon which he returned to France, and entered the army in the capacity of drummer. At eighteen, he deserted, and had a turn with the gipsies. He told fortunes, he conjured, he danced on the tight-rope, he acted, he sold quack medicines, he altered his mind again, and returned to the army. Here he fell in love with the vivandière of his new regiment. The sergeant-major of the company, touched by the same amiable weakness, naturally resented his attentions to the lady. Poulailler (perhaps unjustifiably) asserted himself by boxing his officer's ears. Out flashed the swords on both sides, and in went Poulailler's blade through and through the tender heart of the sergeant-major. The frontier 10 was close at hand. Poulailler wiped his sword, and crossed it.
Sentence of death was recorded against him in his absence. When society has condemned us to die, if we are men of any spirit how are we to return the compliment? By condemning society to keep us alive—or, in other words, by robbing right and left for a living. Poulailler's destiny was now accomplished. He was picked out to be the Greatest Thief of his age; and when Fate summoned him to his place in the world, he stepped forward and took it. His life hitherto had been merely the life of a young scamp—he was now to do justice to the diabolical father who had adopted him, and to expand to the proportions of a full-grown Robber.
His first exploits were performed in Germany. They showed such novelty of combination, such daring, such dexterity, and, even in his most homicidal moments, such irresistible gaiety and good humour, that a band of congenial spirits gathered about him in no time. As commander-in-chief of the Thieves' army, his popularity never wavered. His weaknesses—and what illustrious man is without them?—were three in number. First weakness—he was extravagantly susceptible to the charms of the fair sex. Second weakness—he was perilously fond of practical jokes. Third weakness (inherited from his adopted parent)—his appetite was insatiable in the matter of 11 fried fish. As for the merits to set against these defects, some have been noticed already, and others will appear immediately. Let it merely be premised, in this place, that he was one of the handsomest men of his time, that he dressed superbly, and that he was capable of the most exalted acts of generosity wherever a handsome woman was concerned—let this be understood, to begin with; and let us now enter on the narrative of his last exploit in Germany before he returned to France. This adventure is something more than a mere specimen of his method of workmanship—it proved, in the future, to be the fatal event of his life.
On a Monday in the week, he had stopped on the highway, and robbed of all his valuables and all his papers, an Italian nobleman—the Marquis Petrucci of Sienna. On Tuesday, he was ready for another stroke of business. Posted on the top of a steep hill, he watched the road which wound up to the summit on one side, while his followers were ensconced on the road which led down from it on the other. The prize expected, in this case, was the travelling carriage (with a large sum of money inside) of the Baron de Kirbergen.
Before long, Poulailler discerned the carriage afar off, at the bottom of the hill, and in advance of it, ascending the eminence, two ladies on foot. They were the Baron's daughters—Wilhelmina, a fair 12 beauty; Frederica, a brunette—both lovely, both accomplished, both susceptible, both young. Poulailler sauntered down the hill to meet the fascinating travellers. He looked—bowed—introduced himself—and fell in love with Wilhelmina on the spot. Both the charming girls acknowledged in the most artless manner that confinement to the carriage had given them the fidgets, and that they were walking up the hill to try the remedy of gentle exercise. Poulailler's heart was touched, and Poulailler's generosity to the sex was roused in the nick of time. With a polite apology to the young ladies, he ran back, by a short cut, to the ambush on the other side of the hill in which his men were posted.
"Gentlemen!" cried the generous Thief, "in the charming name of Wilhelmina de Kirbergen, I charge you all, let the Baron's carriage pass free." The band was not susceptible—the band demurred. Poulailler knew them. He had appealed to their hearts in vain—he now appealed to their pockets. "Gentlemen!" he resumed, "excuse my momentary misconception of your sentiments. Here is my one half share of the Marquis Petrucci's property. If I divide it among you, will you let the carriage pass free?" The band knew the value of money—and accepted the terms. Poulailler rushed back up the hill, and arrived at the top just in time to hand the young ladies into the carriage. "Charming man!" said 13 the white Wilhelmina to the brown Frederica, as they drove off. Innocent soul! what would she have said if she had known that her personal attractions had saved her father's property? Was she ever to see the charming man again? Yes: she was to see him the next day—and, more than that, Fate was hereafter to link her fast to the robber's life and the robbers doom.
Confiding the direction of the band to his first lieutenant, Poulailler followed the carriage on horseback, and ascertained the place of the Baron's residence that night.
The next morning a superbly-dressed stranger knocked at the door. "What name, sir?" said the servant. "The Marquis Petrucci of Sienna," replied Poulailler. "How are the young ladies after their journey?" The Marquis was shown in, and introduced to the Baron. The Baron was naturally delighted to receive a brother nobleman—Miss Wilhelmina was modestly happy to see the charming man again—Miss Frederica was affectionately pleased on her sister's account. Not being of a disposition to lose time where his affections were concerned, Poulailler expressed his sentiments to the beloved object that evening. The next morning he had an interview with the Baron, at which he produced the papers which proved him to be the Marquis. Nothing could be more satisfactory to the mind of the most anxious 14 parent—the two noblemen embraced. They were still in each other's arms, when a second stranger knocked at the door. "What name, sir?" said the servant. "The Marquis Petrucci of Sienna," replied the stranger. "Impossible!" said the servant; "his lordship is now in the house." "Show me in, scoundrel," cried the visitor. The servant submitted, and the two Marquises stood face to face. Poulailler's composure was not shaken in the least; he had come first to the house, and he had got the papers. "You are the villain who robbed me!" cried the true Petrucci. "You are drunk, mad, or an impostor," retorted the false Petrucci. "Send to Florence, where I am known," exclaimed one of the Marquises, apostrophising the Baron. "Send to Florence by all means," echoed the other, addressing himself to the Baron also. "Gentlemen," replied the noble Kirbergen, "I will do myself the honour of taking your advice"—and he sent to Florence accordingly.
Before the messenger had advanced ten miles on his journey, Poulailler had said two words in private to the susceptible Wilhelmina—and the pair eloped from the baronial residence that night. Once more the subject of this Memoir crossed the frontier, and re-entered France. Indifferent to the attractions of rural life, he forthwith established himself with the beloved object in Paris. In that superb city he met with his strangest adventures, performed his boldest 15 achievements, committed his most prodigious robberies, and, in a word, did himself and his infernal patron the fullest justice, in the character of the Fiend-Fisherman's Adopted Son.
III.—His Career in Paris.
Once established in the French metropolis, Poulailler planned and executed that vast system of perpetual robbery and occasional homicide which made him the terror and astonishment of all Paris. In-doors, as well as out, his good fortune befriended him. No domestic anxieties harassed his mind, and diverted him from the pursuit of his distinguished public career. The attachment of the charming creature with whom he had eloped from Germany, survived the discovery that the Marquis Petrucci was Poulailler the robber. True to the man of her choice, the devoted Wilhelmina shared his fortunes, and kept his house. And why not, if she loved him?—in the all-conquering name of Cupid, why not?
Joined by picked men from his German followers, and by new recruits gathered together in Paris, Poulailler now set society and its safeguards at flat defiance. Cartouche himself was his inferior in audacity and cunning. In course of time, the whole city was panic-stricken by the new robber and his band—the very Boulevards were deserted after nightfall. Monsieur Hérault, lieutenant of police of the period, in 16 despair of laying hands on Poulailler by any other means, at last offered a reward of a hundred pistoles and a place in his office worth two thousand livres a-year to any one who would apprehend the robber alive. The bills were posted all over Paris—and, the next morning, they produced the very last result in the world which the lieutenant of police could possibly have anticipated.
Whilst Monsieur Hérault was at breakfast in his study, the Count de Villeneuve was announced as wishing to speak to him. Knowing the Count by name only, as belonging to an ancient family in Provence, or in Languedoc, Monsieur Hérault ordered him to be shown in. A perfect gentleman appeared, dressed with an admirable mixture of magnificence and good taste. "I have something for your private ear, sir," said the Count. "Will you give orders that no one must be allowed to disturb us?"
Monsieur Hérault gave the orders.
"May I enquire, Count, what your business is?" he asked, when the door was closed.
"To earn the reward you offer for taking Poulailler," answered the Count. "I am Poulailler."
Before Monsieur Hérault could open his lips, the robber produced a pretty little dagger and some rose-coloured silk cord. "The point of this dagger is poisoned," he observed; "and one scratch of it, my dear sir, would be the death of you." With these 17 words Poulailler gagged the lieutenant of police, bound him to his chair with the rose-coloured cord, and lightened his writing-desk of one thousand pistoles. "I'll take money, instead of taking the place in the office which you kindly offer," said Poulailler. "Don't trouble yourself to see me to the door. Good morning."
A few weeks later, while Monsieur Hérault was still the popular subject of ridicule throughout Paris, business took Poulailler on the road to Lille and Cambrai. The only inside passenger in the coach besides himself, was the venerable Dean Potter of Brussels. They fell into talk on the one interesting subject of the time—not the weather, but Poulailler.
"It's a disgrace, sir, to the police," said the Dean, "that such a miscreant is still at large. I shall be returning to Paris, by this road, in ten days' time, and I shall call on Monsieur Hérault, to suggest a plan of my own for catching the scoundrel."
"May I ask what it is?" said Poulailler.
"Excuse me," replied the Dean; "you are a stranger, sir,—and, moreover, I wish to keep the merit of suggesting the plan to myself."
"Do you think the lieutenant of police will see you?" asked Poulailler; "he is not accessible to strangers, since the miscreant you speak of played him that trick at his own breakfast-table."
"He will see Dean Potter of Brussels," was the 18 reply, delivered with the slightest possible tinge of offended dignity.
"Oh, unquestionably!" said Poulailler,—"pray pardon me."
"Willingly, sir," said the Dean—and the conversation flowed into other channels.
Nine days later the wounded pride of Monsieur Hérault was soothed by a very remarkable letter. It was signed by one of Poulailler's band, who offered himself as King's evidence, in the hope of obtaining a pardon. The letter stated that the venerable Dean Potter had been waylaid and murdered by Poulailler, and that the robber, with his customary audacity, was about to re-enter Paris by the Lisle coach, the next day, disguised in the Dean's own clothes, and furnished with the Dean's own papers. Monsieur Hérault took his precautions without losing a moment. Picked men were stationed, with their orders, at the barrier through which the coach must pass to enter Paris; while the lieutenant of police waited at his office, in the company of two French gentlemen who could speak to the Dean's identity, in the event of Poulailler's impudently persisting in the assumption of his victim's name.
At the appointed hour the coach appeared, and out of it got a man in the Dean's costume. He was arrested in spite of his protestations; the papers of the murdered Potter were found on him, and he was 19 dragged off to the police office in triumph. The door opened, and the posse comitatus entered with the prisoner. Instantly the two witnesses burst out with a cry of recognition, and turned indignantly on the lieutenant of police. "Gracious Heaven, sir, what have you done!" they exclaimed in horror; "this is not Poulailler—here is our venerable friend; here is the Dean himself!" At the same moment, a servant entered with a letter. "Dean Potter. To the care of Monsieur Hérault, Lieutenant of Police." The letter was expressed in these words: "Venerable sir,—Profit by the lesson I have given you. Be a Christian for the future, and never again try to injure a man unless he tries to injure you. Entirely yours, Poulailler."
These feats of cool audacity were matched by others, in which his generosity to the sex asserted itself as magnanimously as ever.
Hearing, one day, that large sums of money were kept in the house of a great lady, one Madame de Brienne, whose door was guarded, in anticipation of a visit from the famous thief, by a porter of approved trustworthiness and courage, Poulailler undertook to rob her in spite of her precautions, and succeeded. With a stout pair of leather straps and buckles in his pocket, and with two of his band, disguised as a coachman and footman, he followed Madame de Brienne one night to the theatre. Just before the 20 close of the performance, the lady's coachman and footman were tempted away for five minutes by Poulailler's disguised subordinates to have a glass of wine. No attempt was made to detain them, or to drug their liquor. But, in their absence, Poulailler had slipped under the carriage, had hung his leather straps round the pole—one to hold by, and one to support his feet—and, with these simple preparations, was now ready to wait for events. Madame de Brienne entered the carriage—the footman got up behind—Poulailler hung himself horizontally under the pole, and was driven home with them, under those singular circumstances. He was strong enough to keep his position after the carriage had been taken into the coach-house; and he only left it when the doors were locked for the night. Provided with food beforehand, he waited patiently, hidden in the coach-house, for two days and nights, watching his opportunity of getting into Madame de Brienne's boudoir.
On the third night the lady went to a grand ball—the servants relaxed in their vigilance while her back was turned—and Poulailler slipped into the room. He found two thousand louis d'ors, which was nothing like the sum he expected, and a pocket-book, which he took away with him to open at home. It contained some stock-warrants for a comparatively trifling amount. Poulailler was far too well off to care about taking them, and far too polite, where a 21 lady was concerned, not to send them back again, under those circumstances. Accordingly, Madame de Brienne received her warrants, with a note of apology from the polite thief.
"Pray excuse my visit to your charming boudoir," wrote Poulailler, "in consideration of the false reports of your wealth, which alone induced me to enter it. If I had known what your pecuniary circumstances really were, on the honour of a gentleman, Madam, I should have been incapable of robbing you. I cannot return your two thousand louis d'ors by post, as I return your warrants. But if you are at all pressed for money in future, I shall be proud to assist so distinguished a lady by lending her, from my own ample resources, double the sum of which I regret to have deprived her on the present occasion." This letter was shown to royalty at Versailles. It excited the highest admiration of the Court—especially of the ladies. Whenever the robber's name was mentioned, they indulgently referred to him as the Chevalier de Poulailler. Ah! that was the age of politeness, when good-breeding was recognised, even in a thief. Under similar circumstances, who would recognise it now? O tempora! O mores!
On another occasion, Poulailler was out, one night, taking the air and watching his opportunities on the roofs of the houses; a member of the band being 22 posted in the street below to assist him in case of necessity. While in this position, sobs and groans proceeding from an open back-garret window caught his ear. A parapet rose before the window, which enabled him to climb down and look in. Starving children surrounding a helpless mother, and clamouring for food, was the picture that met his eye. The mother was young and beautiful; and Poulailler's hand impulsively clutched his purse, as a necessary consequence. Before the charitable thief could enter by the window, a man rushed in by the door, with a face of horror; and cast a handful of gold into the lovely mother's lap. "My honour is gone," he cried; "but our children are saved! Listen to the circumstances. I met a man in the street below; he was tall and thin; he had a green patch over one eye; he was looking up suspiciously at this house, apparently waiting for somebody. I thought of you—I thought of the children—I seized the suspicious stranger by the collar. Terror overwhelmed him on the spot. 'Take my watch, my money, and my two valuable gold snuff-boxes,' he said—'but spare my life.' I took them." "Noble-hearted man!" cried Poulailler, appearing at the window. The husband started; the wife screamed; the children hid themselves. "Let me entreat you to be composed," continued Poulailler. "Sir! I enter on the scene for the purpose of soothing your uneasy 23 conscience. From your vivid description, I recognise the man whose property is now in your wife's lap. Resume your mental tranquillity. You have robbed a robber—in other words, you have vindicated society. Accept my congratulations on your restored innocence. The miserable coward whose collar you seized, is one of Poulailler's band. He has lost his stolen property, as the fit punishment for his disgraceful want of spirit."
"Who are you?" exclaimed the husband.
"I am Poulailler," replied the illustrious man, with the simplicity of an ancient hero. "Take this purse; and set up in business with the contents. There is a prejudice, Sir, in favour of honesty. Give that prejudice a chance. There was a time when I felt it myself; I regret to feel it no longer. Under all varieties of misfortune, an honest man has his consolation still left. Where is it left? Here!" He struck his heart—and the family fell on their knees before him.
"Benefactor of your species!" cried the husband—"how can I show my gratitude?"
"You can permit me to kiss the hand of madame," answered Poulailler.
Madame started to her feet, and embraced the generous stranger. "What more can I do?" exclaimed this lovely woman eagerly—"Oh, Heavens! what more?" 24
"You can beg your husband to light me down stairs," replied Poulailler. He spoke, pressed their hands, dropped a generous tear, and departed. At that touching moment, his own adopted father would not have known him.
This last anecdote closes the record of Poulailler's career in Paris. The lighter and more agreeable aspects of that career have hitherto been designedly presented, in discreet remembrance of the contrast which the tragic side of the picture must now present. Comedy and Sentiment, twin sisters of French extraction, farewell! Horror enters next on the stage—and enters welcome, in the name of the Fiend-Fisherman's Adopted Son.
IV.—His Exit from the Scene.
The nature of Poulailler's more serious achievements in the art of robbery may be realised by reference to one terrible fact. In the police records of the period, more than one hundred and fifty men and women are reckoned up as having met their deaths at the hands of Poulailler and his band. It was not the practice of this formidable robber to take life as well as property, unless life happened to stand directly in his way—in which case he immediately swept off the obstacle without hesitation and without remorse. His deadly determination to rob, which was thus felt by the population in general, was matched 25 by his deadly determination to be obeyed, which was felt by his followers in particular. One of their number, for example, having withdrawn from his allegiance, and having afterwards attempted to betray his leader, was tracked to his hiding-place in a cellar, and was there walled up alive in Poulailler's presence; the robber composing the unfortunate wretch's epitaph, and scratching it on the wet plaster with his own hand. Years afterwards, the inscription was noticed, when the house fell into the possession of a new tenant, and was supposed to be nothing more than one of the many jests which the famous robber had practised in his time. When the plaster was removed, the skeleton fell out, and testified that Poulailler was in earnest.
To attempt the arrest of such a man as this by tampering with his followers, was practically impossible. No sum of money that could be offered would induce any one of the members of his band to risk the fatal chance of his vengeance. Other means of getting possession of him had been tried, and tried in vain. Five times over, the police had succeeded in tracking him to different hiding-places; and on all five occasions, the women—who adored him for his gallantry, his generosity, and his good looks—had helped him to escape. If he had not unconsciously paved the way to his own capture, first by eloping with Mademoiselle Wilhelmina de Kirbergen, 26 and secondly by maltreating her, it is more than doubtful whether the long arm of the law would ever have reached far enough to fasten its grasp on him. As it was, the extremes of love and hatred met at last in the bosom of the devoted Wilhelmina; and the vengeance of a neglected woman accomplished what the whole police force of Paris had been powerless to achieve.
Poulailler, never famous for the constancy of his attachments, had wearied, at an early period, of the companion of his flight from Germany—but Wilhelmina was one of those women whose affections, once aroused, will not take No for an answer. She persisted in attaching herself to a man who had ceased to love her. Poulailler's patience became exhausted; he tried twice to rid himself of his unhappy mistress—once by the knife and once by poison—and failed on both occasions. For the third and last time, by way of attempting an experiment of another kind, he established a rival to drive the German woman out of the house. From that moment his fate was sealed. Maddened by jealous rage, Wilhelmina cast the last fragments of her fondness to the winds. She secretly communicated with the police—and Poulailler met his doom.
A night was appointed with the authorities; and the robber was invited by his discarded mistress to a farewell interview. His contemptuous confidence in 27 her fidelity rendered him careless of his customary precautions. He accepted the appointment; and the two supped together, on the understanding that they were henceforth to be friends, and nothing more. Towards the close of the meal, Poulailler was startled by a ghastly change in the face of his companion.
"What is wrong with you?" he asked.
"A mere trifle," she answered, looking at her glass of wine. "I can't help loving you still, badly as you have treated me. You are a dead man, Poulailler—and I shall not survive you."
The robber started to his feet, and seized a knife on the table.
"You have poisoned me?" he exclaimed.
"No," she replied. "Poison is my vengeance on myself; not my vengeance on you. You will rise from this table as you sat down to it. But your evening will be finished in prison; and your life will be ended on the Wheel."
As she spoke the words, the door was burst open by the police, and Poulailler was secured. The same night the poison did its fatal work; and his mistress made atonement with her life for the first, last, act of treachery which had revenged her on the man she loved.
Once safely lodged in the hands of justice, the 28 robber tried to gain time to escape in, by promising to make important disclosures. The manœuvre availed him nothing. In those days, the Laws of the Land had not yet made acquaintance with the Laws of Humanity. Poulailler was put to the torture—was suffered to recover—was publicly broken on the Wheel—and was taken off it alive, to be cast into a blazing fire. By those murderous means, Society rid itself of a murderous man—and the idlers on the Boulevards took their evening stroll again in recovered security.
Paris had seen the execution of Poulailler—but, if legends are to be trusted, our old friends, the people of the fishing village in Brittany saw the end of him afterwards. On the day and hour when he perished, the heavens darkened, and a terrible storm arose. Once more, and for a moment only, the gleam of the unearthly fire reddened the windows of the old Tower. Thunder pealed and struck the building into fragments. Lightning flashed incessantly over the ruins; and, in the scorching glare of it, the boat which, in former years, had put off to sea whenever the storm rose highest, was seen to shoot out into the raging ocean from the cleft in the rock—and was discovered, on this final occasion, to 29 be doubly manned. The Fiend-Fisherman sat at the helm; his Adopted Son tugged at the oars; and a clamour of diabolical voices, roaring awfully through the roaring storm, wished the pair of them a prosperous voyage. 30
SKETCHES OF CHARACTER.—IV.
THE BACHELOR BEDROOM.
The great merit of this subject is that it starts itself.
The Bachelor Bedroom is familiar to everybody who owns a country house, and to everybody who has stayed in a country house. It is the one especial sleeping apartment, in all civilised residences used for the reception of company, which preserves a character of its own. Married people and young ladies may be shifted about from bedroom to bedroom as their own caprice or the domestic convenience of the host may suggest. But the bachelor guest, when he has once had his room set apart for him, contrives to dedicate it to the perpetual occupation of single men from that moment. Who else is to have the room afterwards, when the very atmosphere of it is altered by tobacco-smoke? Who can venture to throw it open to nervous spinsters, or respectable married couples, when the footman is certain, from mere force of habit, to make his appearance at the 31 door, with contraband bottles and glasses, after the rest of the family have retired for the night? Where, even if these difficulties could be got over, is any second sleeping apartment to be found, in any house of ordinary construction, isolated enough to secure the soberly reposing portion of the guests from being disturbed by the regular midnight party which the bachelor persists in giving in his bedroom? Dining-rooms and breakfast-rooms may change places; double-bedded rooms and single-bedded rooms may shift their respective characters backwards and forwards amicably among each other—but the Bachelor Bedroom remains immovably in its own place; sticks immutably to its own bad character; stands out victoriously whether the house is full, or whether the house is empty, the one hospitable institution that no repentant after-thoughts of host or hostess can ever hope to suppress.
Such a social phenomenon as this, taken with its surrounding circumstances, deserves more notice than it has yet obtained. The bachelor has been profusely served up on all sorts of literary tables; but, the presentation of him has been hitherto remarkable for a singularly monotonous flavour of matrimonial sauce. We have heard of his loneliness, and its remedy; of his solitary position in illness, and its remedy; of the miserable neglect of his linen, and its remedy. But what have we heard of him in 32 connexion with his remarkable bedroom, at those periods of his existence when he, like the rest of the world, is a visitor at his friend's country house? Who has presented him, in his relation to married society, under those peculiar circumstances of his life, when he is away from his solitary chambers, and is thrown straight into the sacred centre of that home circle from which his ordinary habits are so universally supposed to exclude him? Here, surely, is a new aspect of the bachelor still left to be presented; and here is a new subject for worn-out readers of the nineteenth century, whose fountain of literary novelty has become exhausted at the source.
Let me sketch the history—in anticipation of a large and serious work which I intend to produce, one of these days, on the same subject—of the Bachelor Bedroom, in a certain comfortable country house, whose hospitable doors fly open to me with the beginning of summer, and close no more until the autumn is ended. I must beg permission to treat this interesting topic from the purely human point of view. In other words, I propose describing, not the Bedroom itself, but the succession of remarkable bachelors who have passed through it in my time.
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