The Narrative of John Ward Gibson
As I do not intend that any human being shall read this narrative
until after my decease, I feel no desire to suppress or to falsify
any occurrence or event of my life, which I may at the moment
deem of sufficient importance to communicate. I am aware how common
a feeling, even amongst those who have committed the most
atrocious crimes, this dread of entailing obloquy upon their memories
is; but I cannot say that I participate in it. Perhaps I wish
to offer some atonement to society for my many and grievous misdeeds;
and, it may be, the disclosures I am about to make will
be considered an insufficient expiation. I cannot help this, now.
There is One from whom no secrets are hid, by whom I am already
I regret that I did not execute this wretched task long ago.
Should I live to complete it, I shall hold out longer than I expect;
for I was never ready at my pen, and words sometimes will not come
at my bidding. Besides, so many years have elapsed since the chief
events I am about to relate took place, that even they no longer come
before me with that distinctness which they did formerly. They do
not torture me now, as of old times. The caustic has almost burnt
them out of my soul. I will, however, give a plain, and, as nearly as
I am able, a faithful statement. I will offer no palliation of my offences,
which I do not from my soul believe should be extended to
I was born on the 23rd of October 1787. My father was a
watch-case maker, and resided in a street in the parish of Clerkenwell.
I went a few months ago to look at the house, but it was taken
down; indeed, the neighbourhood had undergone an entire change.
I, too, was somewhat altered since then. I wondered at the time
which of the two was the more so.
My earliest recollection recalls two rooms on a second floor, meanly
furnished; my father, a tall, dark man, with a harsh unpleasing
voice; and my mother, the same gentle, quiet being whom I afterwards
My father was a man who could, and sometimes did, earn what
people in his station of life call a great deal of money; and yet he
was constantly in debt, and frequently without the means of subsistence.
The cause of this, I need hardly say, was his addiction to
drinking. Naturally of a violent and brutal temper, intoxication inflamed
his evil passions to a pitch—not of madness, for he had not
that excuse—but of frenzy. It is well known that gentleness and
forbearance do not allay, but stimulate a nature like this; and scenes
of violence and unmanly outrage are almost the sole reminiscences of
my childhood. Perhaps, the circumstance of my having been a
sufferer in one of these ebullitions, served to impress them more
strongly upon my mind.
One evening I had been permitted to sit up to supper. My father
had recently made promises of amendment, and had given an earnest
of his intention by keeping tolerably sober during three entire days;
and upon this festive occasion,—for it was the anniversary of my mother's
marriage,—he had engaged to come home the instant he quitted
his work. He returned, however, about one o'clock in the morning,
and in his accustomed state. The very preparations for his comfort,
which he saw upon the table, served as fuel to his savage and intractable
passions. It was in vain that my mother endeavoured to
soothe and to pacify him. He seized a stool on which I was accustomed
to sit, and levelled a blow at her. She either evaded it, or the
aim was not rightly directed, for the stool descended upon my head,
and fractured my skull.
The doctor said it was a miracle that I recovered; and indeed it
was many months before I did so. The unfeeling repulse I experienced
from my father when, on the first occasion of my leaving my
bed, I tottered towards him, I can never forget. It is impossible to
describe the mingled terror and hatred which entered my bosom at
that moment, and which never departed from it. It may appear incredible
to some that a child so young could conceive so intense a
loathing against its own parent. It is true, nevertheless; and, as I
grew, it strengthened.
I will not dwell upon this wretched period of my life; for even
to me, at this moment, and after all that I have done and suffered,
the memory of that time is wretchedness.
One night, about two years afterwards, my father was brought
home on a shutter by two watchmen. He had fallen into the New
River on his return from a public-house in the vicinity of Sadler's
Wells Theatre, and was dragged out just in time to preserve for
the present a worthless and degraded life. A violent cold supervened,
which settled upon his lungs; and, in about a month, the doctor
informed my mother that her husband was in a rapid decline.
The six months that ensued were miserable enough. My mother
was out all day, toiling for the means of subsistence for a man who
was not only ungrateful for her attentions, but who repelled them
with the coarsest abuse.
I was glad when he died, nor am I ashamed to avow it; and I almost
felt contempt for my mother when the poor creature threw herself
upon the body in a paroxysm of grief, calling it by those endearing
names which indicated a love he had neither requited nor deserved.
Had I been so blest as to have met with one to love me as that
woman loved my father, I had been a different, and a better, and,
perhaps, a good man!
"Will you not kiss your poor father, John, and see him for the last
time?" said my mother on the morning of the funeral, as she took
me by the hand.
No; I would not. I was no hypocrite then. It is true I was terrified
at the sight of death, but that was not the cause. The manner
in which he had repulsed me nearly three years before, had never for
a moment departed from my mind. There was not a day on which I
did not brood upon it. I have often since recalled it, and with bitterness.
I remember it now.
My mother had but one relation in the world,—an uncle, possessed
of considerable property, who resided near Luton, in Bedfordshire.
She applied to him for some small assistance to enable her to pay the
funeral expenses of her husband. Mr. Adams—for that was her
uncle's name—sent her two guineas, accompanied by a request that
she would never apply to, or trouble him again. There was, however,
one person who stept forward in this extremity,—Mr. Ward, a
tradesman, with whom my mother had formerly lived as a servant,
but who had now retired from business. He offered my mother an
asylum in his house. She was to be his housekeeper; and he promised
to take care of, and one day to provide for, me. It was not long
before we were comfortably settled in a small private house in Coppice-row,
where, for the first time in my life, I was permitted to ascertain
that existence was not altogether made up of sorrow.
The old gentleman even conceived a strong liking, it may be called
an affection, for me. He had stood godfather to me at my
birth; and I believe, had I been his own son, he could not have treated
me with more tenderness. He sent me to school, and was delighted
at the progress I made, or appeared to make, which he
protested was scarcely less than wonderful; a notion which the tutor
was, of course, not slow to encourage and confirm. He predicted
that I should inevitably make a bright man, and become a worthy
member of society; the highest distinction, in the old gentleman's
opinion, at which any human being could arrive. Alas! woe to the
child of whom favourable predictions are hazarded! There never yet,
I think, was an instance in which they were not falsified.
We had been residing with Mr. Ward about three years, when a
slight incident occurred which has impressed itself so strongly upon
my memory that I cannot forbear relating it. Mr. Ward had sent
me with a message into the City, where, in consequence of the person
being from home, I was detained several hours. When I returned,
it appeared that Mr. Ward had gone out shortly after me, and had
not mentioned the circumstance of his having despatched me into the
City. I found my mother in a state of violent agitation. She inquired
where I had been, and I told her.
"I can hardly believe you, John," she said; "are you sure you
are telling me the truth?"
I was silent. She repeated the question. I would not answer;
and she bestowed upon me a sound beating.
I bore my punishment with dogged sullenness, and retired into the
back kitchen; in a corner of which I sat down, and, with my head
between my hands, began to brood over the treatment I had received.
Gradually there crept into my heart the same feeling I remembered
to have conceived against my father,—a feeling of bitter malignity
revived by a fresh object. I endeavoured to quell it, to subdue it, but
I could not. I recalled all my mother's former kindness to me, her
present affection for me; and I reminded myself that this was the
first time she had ever raised her hand against me. This thought
only nourished the feeling, till the aching or my brain caused it to
subside into moody stupefaction.
I became calmer in about an hour, and arose, and went into the
front kitchen. My mother was seated at the window, employed at
her needle; and, as she raised her eyes, I perceived they were red
with weeping. I walked slowly towards her, and stood by her side.
"Mother!" I said, in a low and tremulous voice.
"Well, John; I hope you are a good boy now?"
"Mother!" I repeated, "you don't know how you have hurt me."
"I am sorry I struck you so hard, child; I did not mean to do it;"
and she averted her head.
"Not that—not that!" I cried passionately, beating my bosom with
my clenched hands. "It's here, mother—here. I told you the truth,
and you would not believe me."
"Mr. Ward has returned now," said my mother; "I will go ask
him;" and she arose.
I caught her by the gown. "Oh, mother!" I said, "this is the
second time you would not believe me. You shall not go to Mr. Ward
yet!" and I drew her into the seat. "Say first that you are sorry
for it—only a word. Oh, do say it!"
As I looked up, I saw the tears gathering in her eyes. I fell upon
my knees, and hid my face in her lap. "No, no; don't say anything
now to me—don't—don't!" A spasm rose from my chest into my
throat, and I fell senseless at her feet.
My mother afterwards told me that it was the day of the year on
which my father died, and she feared from my lengthened stay that
I had come to harm. Dear, good woman! Oh! that I might hope
to see her once more, even though it were but for one moment,—for
we shall not meet in heaven!
It was a cruel blow that deprived us of our kind protector!
Mr. Ward died suddenly, and without a will; and my mother and I
were left entirely unprovided with means. The old gentleman had
often declared his intention of leaving my mother enough to render
her comfortable during the remainder of her days, and had expressed
his determination of setting me on in the world immediately I became
of a proper age. It could hardly be expected that the heir-at-law
would have fulfilled these intentions, even had he been cognisant
of them. He was a low attorney, living somewhere in the
neighbourhood of Drury-lane; and when he attended the funeral,
and during the hour or two he remained in the house after it, it
was quite clear that he had no wish to retain anything that belonged
to his late relative except his property, and his valuable and
available effects. He however paid my mother a month's wages
in advance, presented me a dollar to commence the world with,
shook hands with us, and wished us well.
It was not long before my mother obtained a situation as servant
in a small respectable family in King-street, Holborn; and, as I was
now nearly eleven years of age, it was deemed by her friends high
time that I should begin to get my own living. Such small influence,
therefore, as my mother could command, was set on foot in my behalf;
and I at length got a place as errand-boy to a picture-dealer
in Wardour-street, Oxford-street. The duties required of me in this
situation, if not of a valuable description, were, at least, various. I
went with messages, I attended sales, I kept the shop, I cleaned the
knives and shoes, and, indeed, performed all those services which it
is the province of boys to render, some of which are often created
because there happens to be boys to do them.
This routine was, for a time, irksome. When I recalled the happy
days I had spent under the roof of Mr. Ward, and the hopes and expectations
he had excited within me of a more prosperous commencement
of life,—hopes which his death had so suddenly destroyed,—it
is not surprising that I should have felt a degree of discontent of my
condition, for which I had no other cause. As I sat by the kitchen
fire of an evening when my day's work was done, I often pictured to
myself the old man lying where we had left him in the churchyard,
mouldering insensibly away, unconscious of rain, or wind, or sunshine,
or the coming of night, or the approach of day, wrapped in a shroud
which would outlast its wearer, and silently waiting for oblivion.
These thoughts became less frequent as time wore on; but I have
never been able to dissociate the idea of death from these hideous
conditions of mortality.
My master, Mr. Bromley, when I first entered his service, was a
man of about the middle age, and of rather grave and formal manners.
He had not a bad heart; but I have since discovered that
what appeared to my boyish fancy a hard and cold selfishness was
but the exterior of those narrow prejudices which too many of that
class, if not of all classes, indulge, or rather inherit. He felt that a
distance ought to be preserved between himself and his servant; and
what he thought he ought to do, he always did; so that I had been
with him a considerable period before he even addressed a word to
me which business did not constrain him to utter.
He had a daughter, a girl about eighteen years of age. What a
human being was Louisa Bromley! She was no beauty; but she
had a face whose sweetness was never surpassed. I saw something
like it afterwards in the faces of some of Raffaele's angels. The broad
and serene forehead, the widely-parted eyebrow, the inexplicable
mouth, the soul that pervaded the whole countenance! I can never
forget that face; and, when I call it back to memory now, I admire it
the more because, to use the modern jargon, there was no intellect in it.
There was no thought, no meditation or premeditation; but there
was nature, and it was good-nature.
Her gentleness and kindness soon won upon me. To be kind
to me was at all times the way to win me, and the only way.
I cannot express the happiness I felt at receiving and obeying any
command from her. A smile, or the common courtesy of thanks
from her lips, repaid me a hundred-fold for the performance of the
most menial office.
I had now been with Mr. Bromley about four years. I employed
my leisure, of which I had a great deal, in reading. All the books I
could contrive to borrow, or that fell in my way, I devoured greedily.
Nor did I confine myself exclusively to one branch of reading,—I
cannot call it study. But my chief delight was to peruse the lives of
the great masters of painting, to make myself acquainted with the
history and the comparative merits of their several performances, and
to endeavour to ascertain how many and what specimens existed in
this country. I had, also, a natural taste for painting, and sometimes
surprised my master by the remarks I ventured to make upon productions
he might happen to purchase, or which had been consigned
to him for sale.
Meanwhile, I was permitted to go out in the afternoon of each alternate
Sunday. Upon these occasions I invariably went to see my
mother. How well can I remember the gloomy underground kitchen
in which I always found her, with her Bible before her on a small
round table! With what pleased attention did she listen to me when
I descanted on the one subject upon which I constantly dwelt,—the
determination I felt, as soon as I had saved money enough, and could
see a little more clearly into my future prospects, to take her from service,
that she might come and live with me! This was, in truth, the
one absorbing thought—it might almost be termed the one passion—of
my existence at that time. I had no other hope, no other feeling,
than that of making her latter years a compensation for the misery
she must have endured during my father's life.
One Sunday when I called, as usual, an old woman answered the
door. She speedily satisfied my inquiries after my mother. She had
been very ill for some days, and was compelled to keep her bed. My
heart sank within me. I had seen her frequently in former years disfigured
by her husband's brutality; I had seen her in pain, in anguish,
which she strove to conceal; but I had never known her to be
confined to her room. When I saw her now, young as I was, and unaccustomed
to the sight of disease, I involuntarily shrunk back with
horror. She was asleep. I watched her for a few minutes, and then
stole softly from the room, and returned to my master's house.
He was gone to church with his daughter. I followed thither, and
waited under the portico till they came forth. I quickly singled them
out from the concourse issuing from the church-doors. I drew my
master aside, and besought him to spare me for a few days, that I
might go and attend my mother, who was very ill.
"Is she dying?" he inquired.
I started. "No, not dying. Oh, no!"
"Well, John, I can't spare you: we are very busy now, you
And what was that to me? It is only on occasions like these, that
the value of one's services is recognised. I thought of this at the
time. I turned, in perplexity, to Louisa Bromley. She understood
the silent appeal, and interceded for me. I loved her for that; I
could have fallen down at her feet, and kissed them for it. She prevailed
upon the old man to let me go.
The people of the house at which my mother was a servant were
kind, and even friendly. They permitted me to remain with her.
I never left her side for more than half an hour at a time. She
grew worse rapidly, but I would not believe it. My mother, however,
was fully aware of her situation. She told me frequently, with
a smile, which I could not bear to see upon her face, it was so unlike
joy, but it was to comfort me,—she told me that she knew she was
about to die, and she endeavoured to impress upon me those simple
maxims of conduct for my future life which she had herself derived
from her parents. She must not die—must not; and I heard with
impatience, and heedlessly, the advice she endeavoured to bestow
She died. The old nurse told me she was dead. It could not be,—she
was asleep. My mother had told me not an hour before, that
she felt much better, and wanted a little sleep; and at that moment
her hand was clasped in mine. The lady of the house took me gently
by the arm, and, leading me into an adjoining room, began to talk
to me in a strain, I suppose, usually adopted upon such occasions,—for
I knew not what she said to me.
In about two hours I was permitted to see my mother again.
There was a change—a frightful change! The nurse, I remember,
said something about her looking like one asleep. I burst into a loud
laugh. Asleep! that blank, passive, impenetrable face like sleep—petrified
sleep! I enjoined them to leave me, and they let me have
my own way; for, boy as I was, they were frightened at me.
I took my mother's hand, and wrung it violently. I implored her
to speak to me once more, to repeat that she still loved me, to tell
me that she forgave all my faults, all my omissions, all my sins towards
her. And then I knew she was dead, and fell down upon my
knees to pray; but I could not. Something told me that I ought not—something
whispered that I ought rather to——; but I was struck
senseless upon the floor.
The mistress of my mother, who was a good and worthy woman,
offered to pay her funeral expenses; but I would not permit it. Not
a farthing would I receive from her; out of my own savings I buried
If I could have wept—but I never could weep—when this calamity
befell me, I think that impious thought would never have entered my
brain. That thought was, that the Almighty was unjust to deprive
me of the only being in the world who loved me, who understood me,
who knew that I had a heart, and that, when it was hurt and outraged,
my head was not safe—not to be trusted. That thought remained
with me for years.
Five years elapsed. The grief occasioned by my mother's death
having in some measure subsided, my thoughts became concentrated
upon myself with an intensity scarcely to be conceived. A new passion
took possession of my soul: I would distinguish myself, if possible,
and present to the world another instance of friendless poverty
overcoming and defying the obstacles and impediments to its career.
With this view constantly before me, I read even more diligently
than heretofore. I made myself a proficient in the principles of mathematics;
I acquired some knowledge of mechanical science; but,
above all, I took every opportunity of improving my taste in the
fine arts. This last accomplishment was soon of infinite service to
me; many gentlemen who frequented our shop were pleased to take
much notice of me; my master was frequently rallied upon having a
servant who knew infinitely more of his business than himself; and
my opinion on one or two remarkable occasions was taken in preference
to that of my employer.
Mr. Bromley naturally and excusably might have conceived no
slight envy of my acquirements; but he was not envious. Shall I be
far wrong when I venture to say, that few men are so, where pecuniary
interest points out the impolicy of their encouraging that feeling?
Be this as it may, he treated me with great kindness; and I
was grateful for it, really and strongly so. I had been long since
absolved from the performance of those menial duties which had been
required of me when I first entered his service; my wages were increased
to an extent which justified me in calling them by the more
respectable term, salary; I was permitted to live out of the house;
and in all respects the apparent difference and distance between my
master and myself were sensibly diminished.
During this period of five years I never received one unkind word
or look from Louisa Bromley: and the affection I bore towards this
young woman, which was the affection a brother might have felt,
caused me to strive by every means at my command to advance the
fortunes of her father. And, indeed, the old man had become so attached
to me,—partly, and I doubt not unconsciously, because my
talents were of value to him,—that I should not have had the heart,
even had my inclinations prompted me, to desert him. It is certain
that I might have improved my own position by doing so.
At this time Frederick Steiner became acquainted with Mr. Bromley.
He was a young man about thirty years of age, of German descent,
and possessed of some property. The manners of Steiner
were plausible, he was apparently candid, his address indicated frankness
and entire absence of guile, and he was handsome; yet I never
liked the man. It is commonly supposed that women are gifted with
the power of detecting the worst points of the characters of men at
the first glance. This gift is withheld when they first behold the man
they are disposed to love. This, at any rate, was the case with
Not to dwell upon this part of my narrative, in a few months Bromley's
daughter was married to Steiner, who was taken into partnership.
I must confess I was deeply mortified at this. I myself had conceived
hopes of one day becoming Bromley's partner; and my anxiety
for the happiness of his daughter led me to doubt whether she had
not made a choice which she might have occasion afterwards to deplore.
However, things went on smoothly for a time. Steiner was
civil, nay, even friendly to me; and the affection he evinced towards
his little boy, who was born about a year after the marriage, displayed
him in so amiable a light, that I almost began to like the man.
It was not very long, however, before Steiner and I came to understand
each other more perfectly. He was possessed with an overweening
conceit of his taste in pictures, and I on my part obstinately
adhered to my own opinion, whenever I was called upon to pronounce
one. This led to frequent differences, which commonly ended in a
dispute, which Bromley was in most cases called upon to decide. The
old man, doubtless, felt the awkwardness of his position; but, as his
interest was inseparable from a right view of the question at issue,
he commonly decided with me.
Upon these occasions Steiner vented his mortification in sneers at
my youth, and ironical compliments to me upon my cleverness and
extraordinary genius; for both of which requisites, as he was signally
deficient in them, he especially hated me. I could have repaid his
hatred with interest, for I kept it by me in my own bosom, and it accumulated
I know not how it happened that the child wound itself round my
heart, but it was so. It seemed as though there were a necessity
that, in proportion as I detested Steiner, I must love his child. But
the boy, from the earliest moment he could take notice of anything,
or could recognise anybody, had attached himself to me; and I loved
him, perhaps for that cause, with a passionate fondness which I can
scarcely imagine to be the feeling even of a parent towards his child.
If I were not slow by nature to detect the first indications of incipient
estrangement, I think I should have perceived in less than two
years after Steiner had been taken into partnership by Mr. Bromley, a
growing reserve, an uneasy constraint in the manners of the latter,
and a studied, an almost formal civility on the part of his daughter.
I now think there must have been something of the kind, although it
was not at the time apparent to me. I am certain, at all events, there
was less cordiality, less friendship, in the deportment of Mrs. Steiner
towards me: a circumstance which I remember to have considered
the result of her altered situation. The terms of almost social equality,
however, were no longer observed.
One Mr. Taylor, a very extensive picture-dealer, who lived in the
Haymarket, made several overtures to me about this time. He had
heard many gentlemen of acknowledged taste speak of me in the
highest terms; and, in truth, I was now pretty generally recognised
throughout the trade as one of the best judges of pictures in London.
I had more than one interview, of his own seeking, with this gentleman.
He made me a most flattering and advantageous offer: he
would have engaged my services for a certain number of years, and at
the expiration of the period he would have bound himself to take me
into partnership. I had received many similar offers before, although
none that could be for a moment compared, on the score of emolument
and stability, with this. I rejected those for the sake of Bromley:
I rejected this for my own.
Shall I be weak enough to confess it? The respect I bore the old
man even now; my affection for his daughter, my love for the child,
went some part of the way towards a reason for declining Taylor's
proposal; but it did not go all the way. I hated Steiner so intensely,
so mortally, and he supplied me daily with such additional cause of
hatred, that I felt a species of excitement, of delight, in renewing
from time to time my altercations with him: a delight which was
considerably increased by the fact that he was quite incapable of
competing with me in argument. There was another reason, which
added a zest, if anything could do so, to the exquisite pleasure I derived
from tormenting him,—the belief I entertained that Bromley
and himself dared not part with me: they knew my value too well.
Bromley, at least, I was well aware, was conscious enough of that.
I had been attending one day a sale of pictures, the property of a
certain nobleman whose collection, thirty years ago, was the admiration
of connoisseurs. Mr. —— (I need not give his name, but
he is still living,) had employed me to bid for several amongst the
collection; and had requested my opinion of a few, the merit of which,
although strongly insisted upon, he was disposed to doubt. When I
returned in the evening, I saw Steiner in the shop waiting for me, and—for
hate is quick at these matters, quicker even than love—I knew
that he meditated a quarrel. I was not mistaken. He looked rather
pale, and his lip quivered slightly.
"And so," said he, "you have been holding several conversations
with Mr. Taylor lately; haven't you, Mr. Gibson?"
"Who told you that I had been holding conversations with him?"
"No matter: you have done so. Pray, may I ask the tenour of
"Mr. Taylor wished to engage my services," I replied, "and I declined
to leave Mr. Bromley."
"That's not very likely," said Steiner with a sneer.
Steiner was right there; it was not very likely. He might with
justice consider me a fool for not having embraced the offer.
"I suppose," pursued Steiner in the same tone, "Mr. —— would
follow you to your new situation. You would select his pictures for
him as usual, doubtless."
"Doubtless I should," said I with a cool smile that enraged him.
"Mr. —— would follow me certainly, and many others would follow
him, Mr. Steiner."
"I'll tell you what it is," cried Steiner, and a flush overspread his
face; "Taylor has been using you for his own purposes. You have
been endeavouring to undermine our connexion, and have been serving
him at the same time that you have taken our wages."
It was not a difficult matter at any time to move me to anger. I
approached him, and with a glance of supreme scorn replied, "It is
false!—nay, I don't fear you—it's a lie,—an infamous lie!"
Steiner was a very powerful man, and in the prime of manhood; I
was young, and my limbs were not yet fixed,—not set. He struck
me a violent blow on the face. I resisted as well as I was able; but
what can weakness do against strength, even though it have justice on
its side? He seized me by the cravat, and, forcing his knuckles
against my throat, dealt me with the other hand a violent blow on the
temple, and felled me to the earth. O that I had never risen from it!
It had been better.
When I came to my senses, for the blow had for a while stunned
me, I arose slowly, and with difficulty. Steiner was still standing
over me in malignant triumph, and I could see in the expression of
his eyes the gratified conviction he felt of having repaid the long
score of ancient grudges in which he was indebted to me. His wife
was clinging to his arm, and as I looked into her face I perceived
terror in it, certainly; but there was no sympathy,—nay, that is not
the word,—I could not have borne that; there was no sorrow, no
interest, no concern about me. My heart sickened at this. Bromley
was there also. He appeared slightly perplexed; and, misconceiving
the meaning of my glance, said coldly, but hurriedly, "You brought
it entirely upon yourself, Mr. Gibson."
I turned away, and walked to the other end of the shop for my hat.
I had put it on, and was about leaving them. As I moved towards
the door, I was nearly throwing down the little boy, who had followed
me, and was now clinging to the skirt of my coat, uttering in imperfect
accents my name. I looked down. The little thing wanted to
come to me to kiss me. Sweet innocent! there was one yet in the
world to love me. I would have taken the child in my arms; but
Mrs. Steiner exclaimed abruptly, "Come away, Fred,—do; I insist
upon it, sir." From that time, and for a long time, I hated the woman
I retreated to my lodging, and slunk to my own room with a sense
of abasement, of degradation, of infamy, I had never felt before. Mrs.
Matthews, the woman of the house, who had answered the door to
me, and had perceived my agitation, followed me up stairs. She inquired
the cause, and was greatly shocked at the frightful contusion
upon my temple. I told her all, for my heart was nigh bursting, and
would be relieved. She hastened down stairs for an embrocation,
which the good woman had always by her, and, returning with it, began
to bathe my forehead.
"Wouldn't I trounce the villain for it," she said, as she continued
to apply the lotion.
"What did you say, Mrs. Matthews?" and I suddenly looked up.
"Why, that I'd have the rascal punished,—that's what I said.
Hanging's too good for such a villain."
The kind creature—I was a favourite of hers—talked a great deal
more to the same effect, and at last left me to procure a bottle of
rum, which, much to her surprise, for I was no drinker, I requested
her to fetch me.
How exquisite it was,—what a luxury to be left alone all to myself!
Punished!—the woman had said truly,—he must be punished. They,
too, must not escape. The ingratitude of the old man,—his insolence
of ingratitude was almost as bad as the conduct of Steiner. After
what I had done for him!—an old servant who had indeed served
him!—who had refused a certainty, a respectable station in society,
perhaps a fortune, for his sake! And he must escape,—he must go
unpunished,—he must revel in the consciousness of the impunity of
his insult? No. I swore that deeply; and, lest it should be possible
that I could falter, or perhaps renounce my intention, I confirmed
that oath with another, which I shudder to think of, and must not
here set down.
I emptied the bottle of rum, but I was not drunk. When I went
to bed I was as sober as I am at this moment. I did not go to bed to
sleep. My senses were in a strange ferment. The roof of my head
seemed to open and shut, and I fancied I could hear the seething of
my brain below. I presently fell into a kind of stupor.
It was past midnight when I recovered from this swoon, and I
started from the bed to my feet. Something had been whispering in
my ear, and I listened for a moment in hideous expectation that the
words—for I did hear words—would be repeated; but all was silent.
I struck a light, and after a time became more composed. Even the
furniture of the room was company to me. Before morning I had
shaped my plan of revenge, and it was in accordance with the words
that had been spoken to me. Oh, my God! what weak creatures we
are! This fantasy possessed, pervaded me; it did not grow,—it did
not increase from day to day,—it came, and it overcame me.
I returned the next morning to Bromley's house, and requested to
see Steiner. I apologised to him for the words I had used on the
previous day, and requested to be permitted to remain in my situation,
if Mr. Bromley would consent to it, until I could turn myself
round; and I hoped, in the mean time, that what had taken place
would be overlooked and forgotten. Steiner received me with a kind
of civil arrogance, and went to confer with his partner. They presently
returned together, and my request, after an admonitory lecture,
rather confusedly delivered, from Bromley, was acceded to;
Steiner warning me at the same time to conduct myself with more
humility for the future, under pain of similar punishment.
I did do so, and for six months nothing could exceed the attention
I paid to business, the zeal I evinced upon every occasion, the forbearance
I exercised under every provocation. And I had need of
forbearance. Bromley had been entirely perverted by his son-in-law;
and the kind old man of former years was changed into a morose and
almost brutal blackguard—to me,—only to me. Mrs. Steiner had
likewise suffered the influence of her husband to undermine, and for
the time to destroy her better feelings; and she treated me upon all
occasions, not merely with marked coldness, but with positive insult.
I need hardly say that Steiner enjoyed almost to satiety the advantage
he had gained over me. Even the very servants of the house
took the cue from their superiors, and looked upon me with contempt
and disdain. The little boy alone, who had received express commands
never to speak to me, sometimes found his way into the shop,
and as he clung round my neck, and bestowed unasked kisses upon my
cheek, my hatred of the rest swelled in my bosom almost to bursting.
The persecution I endured thus long was intense torment to me;
the reader, whoever he may be, will probably think so. He will be
mistaken. It was a source of inconceivable, of exquisite pleasure.
It was a justification to me; it almost made the delay of my vengeance
It was now the 22nd of December 1808. I cannot refrain from
recording the date. Steiner had been during the last six weeks at
Antwerp, and was expected to return in a day or two. He had purchased
at a sale in that city a great quantity of pictures, which had
just arrived, and were now in the shop. They were severally of no
great value, but the purchase had brought Bromley's account at the
banker's to a very low ebb. Mrs. Steiner and the child were going
to spend the Christmas holidays with some relatives residing at Canterbury.
She passed through the shop silently and without even noticing
me, and hurried the boy along lest he should wish—and he did
make an effort to do so—to take his farewell of me. It was evening
at the time, and Bromley was in his back parlour. I was busy in the
shop that evening; it was business of my own, which I transacted secretly.
Having completed it, I did what was rather unusual with me;
I opened the door of the parlour, and bade Bromley good night.
All that evening I hovered about the neighbourhood. I had not
resolution to go from it. Now that the time was come when I should
be enabled, in all human probability, to fulfil, to glut my vengeance,
my heart failed me. The feeling which had supported me during
the last six months, which had been more necessary to my soul than
daily sustenance to my body, had deserted me then, but that by a
powerful effort I contrived to retain it. While I deplored having returned
to Bromley's employment, and the abject apology I had made
to Steiner, that very step and its consequences made it impossible
for me to recede. It must be. It was my fate to do it, and it was
theirs that it should be done.
What trivial incidents cling to the memory sometimes, when they
are linked by association to greater events! I was, I remember
standing at the door of a small chandler's shop in Dean-street, almost
lost to myself, and to all that was passing about me.
The woman of the house tapped me on the shoulder.
"Will you be so good," she said, "as to move on; you are preventing
my customers from entering the shop."
"My good woman," I said, "I hope there is no harm in my standing
"Not much harm," replied the woman, good-humouredly. "I hope
you have been doing nothing worse to-day?"
I started, and gazed at the woman earnestly. She smiled.
"Why, bless the man! you look quite flurried. I haven't offended
you, I hope?"
"No, no!" I muttered hastily, and moved away. The agony I endured
for the next hour I cannot describe.
I passed Bromley's house several times from the hour of nine till
half-past. All was silent, all still. What if my design should not
take effect! I almost hoped that it would not; and yet the boy who
cleaned out the shop must inevitably discover it in the morning. I
trembled at the contemplation of that, and my limbs were overspread
with a clammy dew. It was too late to make a pretext of
business in the shop at that time of night. Bromley was at home,
and might, nay would, suspect me. I resolved to be on the premises
the first thing in the morning, and retired in a state of mind to
which no subsequent occurrence of my life was ever capable of
It was about half-past eleven o'clock, or nearer to twelve, that
the landlord of the Green Man, in Oxford-street, entered the parlour
where I was sitting, gazing listlessly upon two men who were playing
a game at dominos.
"There is a dreadful fire," said he, "somewhere on the other side
of the street;—in Berwick or Wardour-street, I think."
I sprang to my feet, and rushed out of the house, and, turning into
Hanway-yard, ran down Tottenham-court road, crossed the fields,
(they are now built upon,) and never stopped till I reached Pancras
As I leaned against the wall of the churchyard some men came
"Don't you see the fire, master?" said one, as they passed me.
Then, for the first time, I did see the fire, tingeing the clouds with
a lurid and dusky red, and at intervals casting a shower of broken
flame into the air, which expanded itself in wide-spreading scintillations.
God of Heaven! what had I done? Why was I here? I lived in
the neighbourhood of Bromley's house, and they would be sending
for me. The landlord, too, would afterwards remember having seen
me in his parlour, and informing me of the fire in the neighbourhood,
and I should be discovered. These thoughts were the duration of a
moment, but they decided me. I ran back again in a frenzy of remorse
and terror, and in a few minutes was in Wardour-street.
The tumult and confusion were at their height. The noise of the
engines, the outcries of the firemen, the uproar of the crowd, faintly
shadowed forth the tumult in my mind at that moment. I made my
way through the dense mass in advance of me, and at length reached
Bromley had just issued from it, and was wringing his hands, and
stamping his naked feet upon the pavement. He recognised me, and
seized me wildly by the arms.
"Oh! my good God! Gibson," said he, "my child!"
"What child—what child?" cried I, eagerly.
"Mine—mine! and the infant! they are in there!"
"They are gone out of town; don't you remember?" I thought
the sudden fright had deprived him of his senses.
"No, no, no! they were too late! the coach was gone!"
With a loud scream I dashed the old man from me, and flew to the
door, which was open. I made my way through the stifling smoke
that seemed almost to block up the passage, and sprang up stairs.
The bed-room door was locked. With a violent effort I wrenched
off the lock, and rushed into the room.
All was darkness; but presently a huge tongue of flame swept
through the doorway, and, running up the wall, expanded upon the
ceiling; and then I saw a figure in white darting about the room
with angular dodgings like a terrified bird in a cage.
"Where is the child?" I exclaimed, in a voice of frenzy.
Mrs. Steiner knew me, and ran towards me, clasping me with
both arms. She shook her head wildly, and pointed she knew not
"Here, Gibson,—here," cried the child, who had recognised my
I threw off my coat immediately, and, seizing the boy, wrapt him
closely in it.
"This way, madam,—this way; at once, for Heaven's sake!" and
I dragged her to the landing.
There was hell about me then! The flames, the smoke, the fire,
the howlings; it was a living hell! But there was a shriek at that
moment! Mrs. Steiner had left my side. Gracious Heavens! she
had been precipitated below! A sickness came upon me then,—a
sensation of being turned sharply round by some invisible power; and,
with the child tightly clasped in my arms, I was thrown violently forward
into the flames, that seemed howling and yearning to devour