The Notch on the Ax
A Story a la Mode*
* (Here Thackeray reduces to an absurdity the literary fashion of
the day—the vogue for startling stories and "Tales of Terror,"
which was high in his time, and which influenced several of the
stories which precede in this volume. But while Dickens made fun,
with mental reservations; while Bulwer Lytton tried to explain by
rising to the heights of natural philosophy, and Maturin did not
explain at all, but let his extravagant genius roam between heaven
and earth—Thackeray's keen wit saw mainly one chance for exquisite
literary satire and parody. At one point or another in this skit,
the style of each principal sensational novelist of the day is
Every one remembers in the Fourth Book of the immortal poem of your
Blind Bard (to whose sightless orbs no doubt Glorious Shapes were
apparent, and Visions Celestial), how Adam discourses to Eve of the
Bright Visitors who hovered round their Eden—
'Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.'
"'How often,' says Father Adam, 'from the steep of echoing hill or
thicket, have we heard celestial voices to the midnight air, sole,
or responsive to each other's notes, singing!' After the Act of
Disobedience, when the erring pair from Eden took their solitary
way, and went forth to toil and trouble on common earth—though the
Glorious Ones no longer were visible, you cannot say they were
gone. It was not that the Bright Ones were absent, but that the
dim eyes of rebel man no longer could see them. In your chamber
hangs a picture of one whom you never knew, but whom you have long
held in tenderest regard, and who was painted for you by a friend
of mine, the Knight of Plympton. She communes with you. She
smiles on you. When your spirits are low, her bright eyes shine on
you and cheer you. Her innocent sweet smile is a caress to you.
She never fails to soothe you with her speechless prattle. You
love her. She is alive with you. As you extinguish your candle
and turn to sleep, though your eyes see her not, is she not there
still smiling? As you lie in the night awake, and thinking of your
duties, and the morrow's inevitable toil oppressing the busy,
weary, wakeful brain as with a remorse, the crackling fire flashes
up for a moment in the grate, and she is there, your little
Beauteous Maiden, smiling with her sweet eyes! When moon is down,
when fire is out, when curtains are drawn, when lids are closed, is
she not there, the little Beautiful One, though invisible, present
and smiling still? Friend, the Unseen Ones are round about us.
Does it not seem as if the time were drawing near when it shall be
given to men to behold them?"
The print of which my friend spoke, and which, indeed, hangs in my
room, though he has never been there, is that charming little
winter piece of Sir Joshua, representing the little Lady Caroline
Montague, afterwards Duchess of Buccleuch. She is represented as
standing in the midst of a winter landscape, wrapped in muff and
cloak; and she looks out of her picture with a smile so exquisite
that a Herod could not see her without being charmed.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. PINTO," I said to the person with whom I
was conversing. (I wonder, by the way, that I was not surprised at
his knowing how fond I am of this print.) "You spoke of the Knight
of Plympton. Sir Joshua died 1792: and you say he was your dear
As I spoke I chanced to look at Mr. Pinto; and then it suddenly
struck me: Gracious powers! Perhaps you ARE a hundred years old,
now I think of it. You look more than a hundred. Yes, you may be
a thousand years old for what I know. Your teeth are false. One
eye is evidently false. Can I say that the other is not? If a
man's age may be calculated by the rings round his eyes, this man
may be as old as Methuselah. He has no beard. He wears a large
curly glossy brown wig, and his eyebrows are painted a deep olive-
green. It was odd to hear this man, this walking mummy, talking
sentiment, in these queer old chambers in Shepherd's Inn.
Pinto passed a yellow bandanna handkerchief over his awful white
teeth, and kept his glass eye steadily fixed on me. "Sir Joshua's
friend?" said he (you perceive, eluding my direct question). "Is
not everyone that knows his pictures Reynolds's friend? Suppose I
tell you that I have been in his painting room scores of times, and
that his sister The has made me tea, and his sister Toffy has made
coffee for me? You will only say I am an old ombog." (Mr. Pinto,
I remarked, spoke all languages with an accent equally foreign.)
"Suppose I tell you that I knew Mr. Sam Johnson, and did not like
him? that I was at that very ball at Madame Cornelis', which you
have mentioned in one of your little—what do you call them?—bah!
my memory begins to fail me—in one of your little Whirligig
Papers? Suppose I tell you that Sir Joshua has been here, in this
"Have you, then, had these apartments for—more—than—seventy
years?" I asked.
"They look as if they had not been swept for that time—don't they?
Hey? I did not say that I had them for seventy years, but that Sir
Joshua has visited me here."
"When?" I asked, eying the man sternly, for I began to think he was
He answered me with a glance still more stern: "Sir Joshua Reynolds
was here this very morning, with Angelica Kaufmann and Mr. Oliver
Goldschmidt. He is still very much attached to Angelica, who still
does not care for him. Because he is dead (and I was in the fourth
mourning coach at his funeral) is that any reason why he should not
come back to earth again? My good sir, you are laughing at me. He
has sat many a time on that very chair which you are now occupying.
There are several spirits in the room now, whom you cannot see.
Excuse me." Here he turned round as if he was addressing somebody,
and began rapidly speaking a language unknown to me. "It is
Arabic," he said; "a bad patois, I own. I learned it in Barbary,
when I was a prisoner among the Moors. In anno 1609, bin ick aldus
ghekledt gheghaen. Ha! you doubt me: look at me well. At least I
Perhaps some of my readers remember a paper of which the figure of
a man carrying a barrel formed the initial letter, and which I
copied from an old spoon now in my possession. As I looked at Mr.
Pinto I do declare he looked so like the figure on that old piece
of plate that I started and felt very uneasy. "Ha!" said he,
laughing through his false teeth (I declare they were false—I
could see utterly toothless gums working up and down behind the
pink coral), "you see I wore a beard den; I am shafed now; perhaps
you tink I am A SPOON. Ha, ha!" And as he laughed he gave a cough
which I thought would have coughed his teeth out, his glass eye
out, his wig off, his very head off; but he stopped this convulsion
by stumping across the room and seizing a little bottle of bright
pink medicine, which, being opened, spread a singular acrid
aromatic odor through the apartment; and I thought I saw—but of
this I cannot take an affirmation—a light green and violet flame
flickering round the neck of the vial as he opened it. By the way,
from the peculiar stumping noise which he made in crossing the
bare-boarded apartment, I knew at once that my strange entertainer
had a wooden leg. Over the dust which lay quite thick on the
boards, you could see the mark of one foot very neat and pretty,
and then a round O, which was naturally the impression made by the
wooden stump. I own I had a queer thrill as I saw that mark, and
felt a secret comfort that it was not CLOVEN.
In this desolate apartment in which Mr. Pinto had invited me to see
him, there were three chairs, one bottomless, a little table on
which you might put a breakfast tray, and not a single other
article of furniture. In the next room, the door of which was
open, I could see a magnificent gilt dressing case, with some
splendid diamond and ruby shirt studs lying by it, and a chest of
drawers, and a cupboard apparently full of clothes.
Remembering him in Baden-Baden in great magnificence I wondered at
his present denuded state. "You have a house elsewhere, Mr.
Pinto?" I said.
"Many," says he. "I have apartments in many cities. I lock dem
up, and do not carry mosh logish."
I then remembered that his apartment at Baden, where I first met
him, was bare, and had no bed in it.
"There is, then, a sleeping room beyond?"
"This is the sleeping room." (He pronounces it DIS. Can this, by
the way, give any clew to the nationality of this singular man?)
"If you sleep on these two old chairs you have a rickety couch; if
on the floor, a dusty one."
"Suppose I sleep up dere?" said this strange man, and he actually
pointed up to the ceiling. I thought him mad or what he himself
called "an ombog." "I know. You do not believe me; for why should
I deceive you? I came but to propose a matter of business to you.
I told you I could give you the clew to the mystery of the Two
Children in Black, whom you met at Baden, and you came to see me.
If I told you you would not believe me. What for try and convinz
you? Ha hey?" And he shook his hand once, twice, thrice, at me,
and glared at me out of his eye in a peculiar way.
Of what happened now I protest I cannot give an accurate account.
It seemed to me that there shot a flame from his eye into my brain,
while behind his GLASS eye there was a green illumination as if a
candle had been lit in it. It seemed to me that from his long
fingers two quivering flames issued, sputtering, as it were, which
penetrated me, and forced me back into one of the chairs—the
broken one—out of which I had much difficulty in scrambling, when
the strange glamour was ended. It seemed to me that, when I was so
fixed, so transfixed in the broken chair, the man floated up to the
ceiling, crossed his legs, folded his arms as if he was lying on a
sofa, and grinned down at me. When I came to myself he was down
from the ceiling, and, taking me out of the broken cane-bottomed
chair, kindly enough—"Bah!" said he, "it is the smell of my
medicine. It often gives the vertigo. I thought you would have
had a little fit. Come into the open air." And we went down the
steps, and into Shepherd's Inn, where the setting sun was just
shining on the statue of Shepherd; the laundresses were traipsing
about; the porters were leaning against the railings; and the
clerks were playing at marbles, to my inexpressible consolation.
"You said you were going to dine at the 'Gray's-Inn Coffee-House,'"
he said. I was. I often dine there. There is excellent wine at
the "Gray's-Inn Coffee-House"; but I declare I NEVER SAID so. I
was not astonished at his remark; no more astonished than if I was
in a dream. Perhaps I WAS in a dream. Is life a dream? Are
dreams facts? Is sleeping being really awake? I don't know. I
tell you I am puzzled. I have read "The Woman in White," "The
Strange Story"—not to mention that story "Stranger than Fiction"
in the Cornhill Magazine—that story for which THREE credible
witnesses are ready to vouch. I have had messages from the dead;
and not only from the dead, but from people who never existed at
all. I own I am in a state of much bewilderment: but, if you
please, will proceed with my simple, my artless story.
Well, then. We passed from Shepherd's Inn into Holborn, and looked
for a while at Woodgate's bric-a-brac shop, which I never can pass
without delaying at the windows—indeed, if I were going to be
hung, I would beg the cart to stop, and let me have one look more
at that delightful omnium gatherum. And passing Woodgate's, we
come to Gale's little shop, "No. 47," which is also a favorite
haunt of mine.
Mr. Gale happened to be at his door, and as we exchanged
salutations, "Mr. Pinto," I said, "will you like to see a real
curiosity in this curiosity shop? Step into Mr. Gale's little back
In that little back parlor there are Chinese gongs; there are old
Saxe and Sevres plates; there is Furstenberg, Carl Theodor,
Worcester, Amstel, Nankin and other jimcrockery. And in the corner
what do you think there is? There is an actual GUILLOTINE. If you
doubt me, go and see—Gale, High Holborn, No. 47. It is a slim
instrument, much slighter than those which they make now;—some
nine feet high, narrow, a pretty piece of upholstery enough. There
is the hook over which the rope used to play which unloosened the
dreadful ax above; and look! dropped into the orifice where the
head used to go—there is THE AX itself, all rusty, with A GREAT
NOTCH IN THE BLADE.
As Pinto looked at it—Mr. Gale was not in the room, I recollect;
happening to have been just called out by a customer who offered
him three pound fourteen and sixpence for a blue Shepherd in pate
tendre,—Mr. Pinto gave a little start, and seemed crispe for a
moment. Then he looked steadily toward one of those great
porcelain stools which you see in gardens—and—it seemed to me—I
tell you I won't take my affidavit—I may have been maddened by the
six glasses I took of that pink elixir—I may have been sleep-
walking: perhaps am as I write now—I may have been under the
influence of that astounding MEDIUM into whose hands I had fallen—
but I vow I heard Pinto say, with rather a ghastly grin at the
"Nay, nefer shague your gory locks at me,
Dou canst not say I did it."
(He pronounced it, by the way, I DIT it, by which I KNOW that Pinto
was a German.)
I heard Pinto say those very words, and sitting on the porcelain
stool I saw, dimly at first, then with an awful distinctness—a
ghost—an EIDOLON—a form—A HEADLESS MAN seated with his head in
his lap, which wore an expression of piteous surprise.
At this minute, Mr. Gale entered from the front shop to show a
customer some Delft plates; and he did not see—but WE DID—the
figure rise up from the porcelain stool, shake its head, which it
held in its hand, and which kept its eyes fixed sadly on us, and
disappear behind the guillotine.
"Come to the 'Gray's-Inn Coffee-House,'" Pinto said, "and I will
tell you how the notch came to the ax." And we walked down Holborn
at about thirty-seven minutes past six o'clock.
If there is anything in the above statement which astonishes the
reader, I promise him that in the next chapter of this little story
he will be astonished still more.
"You will excuse me," I said to my companion, "for remarking that
when you addressed the individual sitting on the porcelain stool,
with his head in his lap, your ordinarily benevolent features"—
(this I confess was a bouncer, for between ourselves a more
sinister and ill-looking rascal than Mons. P. I have seldom set
eyes on)—"your ordinarily handsome face wore an expression that
was by no means pleasing. You grinned at the individual just as
you did at me when you went up to the cei—, pardon me, as I
THOUGHT you did, when I fell down in a fit in your chambers"; and I
qualified my words in a great flutter and tremble; I did not care
to offend the man—I did not DARE to offend the man. I thought
once or twice of jumping into a cab, and flying; of taking refuge
in Day and Martin's Blacking Warehouse; of speaking to a policeman,
but not one would come. I was this man's slave. I followed him
like his dog. I COULD not get away from him. So, you see, I went
on meanly conversing with him, and affecting a simpering
confidence. I remember, when I was a little boy at school, going
up fawning and smiling in this way to some great hulking bully of a
sixth-form boy. So I said in a word, "Your ordinarily handsome
face wore a disagreeable expression," &c.
"It is ordinarily VERY handsome," said he, with such a leer at a
couple of passers-by, that one of them cried, "Oh, crickey, here's
a precious guy!" and a child, in its nurse's arms, screamed itself
into convulsions. "Oh, oui, che suis tres-choli garcon, bien peau,
cerdainement," continued Mr. Pinto; "but you were right. That—
that person was not very well pleased when he saw me. There was no
love lost between us, as you say: and the world never knew a more
worthless miscreant. I hate him, voyez-vous? I hated him alife; I
hate him dead. I hate him man; I hate him ghost: and he know it,
and tremble before me. If I see him twenty tausend years hence—
and why not?—I shall hate him still. You remarked how he was
"In black satin breeches and striped stockings; a white pique
waistcoat, a gray coat, with large metal buttons, and his hair in
powder. He must have worn a pigtail—only—"
"Only it was CUT OFF! Ha, ha, ha!" Mr. Pinto cried, yelling a
laugh, which I observed made the policeman stare very much. "Yes.
It was cut off by the same blow which took off the scoundrel's
head—ho, ho, ho!" And he made a circle with his hook-nailed
finger round his own yellow neck, and grinned with a horrible
triumph. "I promise you that fellow was surprised when he found
his head in the pannier. Ha! ha! Do you ever cease to hate those
whom you hate?"—fire flashed terrifically from his glass eye as he
spoke—"or to love dose whom you once loved? Oh, never, never!"
And here his natural eye was bedewed with tears. "But here we are
at the 'Gray's-Inn CoffeeHouse.' James, what is the joint?"
That very respectful and efficient waiter brought in the bill of
fare, and I, for my part, chose boiled leg of pork, and pease
pudding, which my acquaintance said would do as well as anything
else; though I remarked he only trifled with the pease pudding, and
left all the pork on the plate. In fact, he scarcely ate anything.
But he drank a prodigious quantity of wine; and I must say that my
friend Mr. Hart's port wine is so good that I myself took—well, I
should think, I took three glasses. Yes, three, certainly. HE—I
mean Mr. P.—the old rogue, was insatiable: for we had to call for
a second bottle in no time. When that was gone, my companion
wanted another. A little red mounted up to his yellow cheeks as he
drank the wine, and he winked at it in a strange manner. "I
remember," said he, musing, "when port wine was scarcely drunk in
this country—though the Queen liked it, and so did Hurley; but
Bolingbroke didn't—he drank Florence and Champagne. Dr. Swift put
water to his wine. 'Jonathan,' I once said to him—but bah! autres
temps, autres moeurs. Another magnum, James."
This was all very well. "My good sir," I said, "it may suit YOU to
order bottles of '20 port, at a guinea a bottle; but that kind of
price does not suit me. I only happen to have thirty-four and
sixpence in my pocket, of which I want a shilling for the waiter,
and eighteen pence for my cab. You rich foreigners and SWELLS may
spend what you like" (I had him there: for my friend's dress was as
shabby as an old-clothes man's); "but a man with a family, Mr.
Whatd'you-call'im, cannot afford to spend seven or eight hundred a
year on his dinner alone."
"Bah!" he said. "Nunkey pays for all, as you say. I will what you
call stant the dinner, if you are SO POOR!" and again he gave that
disagreeable grin, and placed an odious crook-nailed and by no
means clean finger to his nose. But I was not so afraid of him
now, for we were in a public place; and the three glasses of port
wine had, you see, given me courage.
"What a pretty snuff-box!" he remarked, as I handed him mine, which
I am still old-fashioned enough to carry. It is a pretty old gold
box enough, but valuable to me especially as a relic of an old, old
relative, whom I can just remember as a child, when she was very
kind to me. "Yes; a pretty box. I can remember when many ladies—
most ladies, carried a box—nay, two boxes—tabatiere and
bonbonniere. What lady carries snuff-box now, hey? Suppose your
astonishment if a lady in an assembly were to offer you a prise? I
can remember a lady with such a box as this, with a tour, as we
used to call it then; with paniers, with a tortoise-shell cane,
with the prettiest little high-heeled velvet shoes in the world!—
ah! that was a time, that was a time! Ah, Eliza, Eliza, I have
thee now in my mind's eye! At Bungay on the Waveney, did I not
walk with thee, Eliza? Aha, did I not love thee? Did I not walk
with thee then? Do I not see thee still?"
This was passing strange. My ancestress—but there is no need to
publish her revered name—did indeed live at Bungay St. Mary's,
where she lies buried. She used to walk with a tortoise-shell
cane. She used to wear little black velvet shoes, with the
prettiest high heels in the world.
"Did you—did you—know, then, my great-gr-nd-m-ther?" I said.
He pulled up his coat sleeve—"Is that her name?" he said.
There, I declare, was the very name of the kind old creature
written in red on his arm.
"YOU knew her old," he said, divining my thoughts (with his strange
knack); "I knew her young and lovely. I danced with her at the
Bury ball. Did I not, dear, dear Miss ——?"
As I live, he here mentioned dear gr-nny's MAIDEN name. Her maiden
name was ——. Her honored married name was ——.
"She married your great-gr-ndf-th-r the year Poseidon won the
Newmarket Plate," Mr. Pinto dryly remarked.
Merciful powers! I remember, over the old shagreen knife and spoon
case on the sideboard in my gr-nny's parlor, a print by Stubbs of
that very horse. My grandsire, in a red coat, and his fair hair
flowing over his shoulders, was over the mantelpiece, and Poseidon
won the Newmarket Cup in the year 1783!
"Yes; you are right. I danced a minuet with her at Bury that very
night, before I lost my poor leg. And I quarreled with your
As he said "Ha!" there came three quiet little taps on the table—
it is the middle table in the "Gray's-Inn CoffeeHouse," under the
bust of the late Duke of W-ll-ngt-n.
"I fired in the air," he continued; "did I not?" (Tap, tap, tap.)
"Your grandfather hit me in the leg. He married three months
afterwards. 'Captain Brown,' I said 'who could see Miss Sm-th
without loving her?' She is there! She is there!" (Tap, tap,
tap.) "Yes, my first love—"
But here there came tap, tap, which everybody knows means "No."
"I forgot," he said, with a faint blush stealing over his wan
features, "she was not my first love. In Germ—in my own country—
there WAS a young woman—"
Tap, tap, tap. There was here quite a lively little treble knock;
and when the old man said, "But I loved thee better than all the
world, Eliza," the affirmative signal was briskly repeated.
And this I declare UPON MY HONOR. There was, I have said, a bottle
of port wine before us—I should say a decanter. That decanter was
LIFTED UP, and out of it into our respective glasses two bumpers of
wine were poured. I appeal to Mr. Hart, the landlord—I appeal to
James, the respectful and intelligent waiter, if this statement is
not true? And when we had finished that magnum, and I said—for I
did not now in the least doubt her presence—"Dear gr-nny, may we
have another magnum?" the table DISTINCTLY rapped "No.".
"Now, my good sir," Mr. Pinto said, who really began to be affected
by the wine, "you understand the interest I have taken in you. I
loved Eliza ——" (of course I don't mention family names). "I
knew you had that box which belonged to her—I will give you what
you like for that box. Name your price at once, and I pay you on
"Why, when you came out, you said you had not six-pence in your
"Bah! give you anything you like—fifty—a hundred—a tausend
"Come, come," said I, "the gold of the box may be worth nine
guineas, and the facon we will put at six more."
"One tausend guineas!" he screeched. "One tausend and fifty pound
dere!" and he sank back in his chair—no, by the way, on his bench,
for he was sitting with his back to one of the partitions of the
boxes, as I dare say James remembers.
"DON'T go on in this way," I continued rather weakly, for I did not
know whether I was in a dream. "If you offer me a thousand guineas
for this box I MUST take it. Mustn't I, dear gr-nny?"
The table most distinctly said "Yes"; and putting out his claws to
seize the box, Mr. Pinto plunged his hooked nose into it, and
eagerly inhaled some of my 47 with a dash of Hardman.
"But stay, you old harpy!" I exclaimed, being now in a sort of
rage, and quite familiar with him. "Where is the money? Where is
"James, a piece of note paper and a receipt stamp!"
"This is all mighty well, sir," I said, "but I don't know you; I
never saw you before. I will trouble you to hand me that box back
again, or give me a check with some known signature."
"Whose? Ha, Ha, HA!"
The room happened to be very dark. Indeed all the waiters were
gone to supper, and there were only two gentlemen snoring in their
respective boxes. I saw a hand come quivering down from the
ceiling—a very pretty hand, on which was a ring with a coronet,
with a lion rampant gules for a crest. I saw that hand take a dip
of ink and write across the paper. Mr. Pinto, then, taking a gray
receipt stamp out of his blue leather pocketbook, fastened it on to
the paper by the usual process; and the hand then wrote across the
receipt stamp, went across the table and shook hands with Pinto,
and then, as if waving him an adieu, vanished in the direction of
There was the paper before me, wet with the ink. There was the pen
which THE HAND had used. Does anybody doubt me? I have that pen
now,—a cedar stick of a not uncommon sort, and holding one of
Gillott's pens. It is in my inkstand now, I tell you. Anybody may
see it. The handwriting on the check, for such the document was,
was the writing of a female. It ran thus:—"London, midnight,
March 31, 1862. Pay the bearer one thousand and fifty pounds.
Rachel Sidonia. To Messrs. Sidonia, Pozzosanto and Co., London."
"Noblest and best of women!" said Pinto, kissing the sheet of paper
with much reverence. "My good Mr. Roundabout, I suppose you do not
question THAT signature?"
Indeed the house of Sidonia, Pozzosanto and Co., is known to be one
of the richest in Europe, and as for the Countess Rachel, she was
known to be the chief manager of that enormously wealthy
establishment. There was only one little difficulty, the Countess
Rachel died last October.
I pointed out this circumstance, and tossed over the paper to Pinto
with a sneer.
"C'est a brandre ou a laisser," he said with some heat. "You
literary men are all imbrudent; but I did not tink you such a fool
wie dis. Your box is not worth twenty pound, and I offer you a
tausend because I know you want money to pay dat rascal Tom's
college bills." (This strange man actually knew that my scapegrace
Tom had been a source of great expense and annoyance to me.) "You
see money costs me nothing, and you refuse to take it! Once,
twice; will you take this check in exchange for your trumpery
What could I do? My poor granny's legacy was valuable and dear to
me, but after all a thousand guineas are not to be had every day.
"Be it a bargain," said I. "Shall we have a glass of wine on it?"
says Pinto; and to this proposal I also unwillingly acceded,
reminding him, by the way, that he had not yet told me the story of
the headless man.
"Your poor gr-ndm-ther was right just now, when she said she was
not my first love. 'Twas one of those banale expressions" (here
Mr. P. blushed once more) "which we use to women. We tell each she
is our first passion. They reply with a similar illusory formula.
No man is any woman's first love; no woman any man's. We are in
love in our nurse's arms, and women coquette with their eyes before
their tongue can form a word. How could your lovely relative love
me? I was far, far too old for her. I am older than I look. I am
so old that you would not believe my age were I to tell you. I
have loved many and many a woman before your relative. It has not
always been fortunate for them to love me. Ah, Sophronia! Round
the dreadful circus where you fell, and whence I was dragged
corpselike by the heels, there sat multitudes more savage than the
lions which mangled your sweet form! Ah, tenez! when we marched to
the terrible stake together at Valladolid—the Protestant and the
J— But away with memory! Boy! it was happy for thy grandam that
she loved me not.
"During that strange period," he went on, "when the teeming Time
was great with the revolution that was speedily to be born, I was
on a mission in Paris with my excellent, my maligned friend,
Cagliostro. Mesmer was one of our band. I seemed to occupy but an
obscure rank in it: though, as you know, in secret societies the
humble man may be a chief and director—the ostensible leader but a
puppet moved by unseen hands. Never mind who was chief, or who was
second. Never mind my age. It boots not to tell it: why shall I
expose myself to your scornful incredulity—or reply to your
questions in words that are familiar to you, but which you cannot
understand? Words are symbols of things which you know, or of
things which you don't know. If you don't know them, to speak is
idle." (Here I confess Mr. P. spoke for exactly thirty-eight
minutes, about physics, metaphysics, language, the origin and
destiny of man, during which time I was rather bored, and to
relieve my ennui, drank a half glass or so of wine.) "LOVE,
friend, is the fountain of youth! It may not happen to me once—
once in an age: but when I love then I am young. I loved when I
was in Paris. Bathilde, Bathilde, I loved thee—ah, how fondly!
Wine, I say, more wine! Love is ever young. I was a boy at the
little feet of Bathilde de Bechamel—the fair, the fond, the
fickle, ah, the false!" The strange old man's agony was here
really terrific, and he showed himself much more agitated than when
he had been speaking about my gr-ndm-th-r.
"I thought Blanche might love me. I could speak to her in the
language of all countries, and tell her the lore of all ages. I
could trace the nursery legends which she loved up to their
Sanscrit source, and whisper to her the darkling mysteries of the
Egyptian Magi. I could chant for her the wild chorus that rang in
the disheveled Eleusinian revel: I could tell her and I would, the
watchword never known but to one woman, the Saban Queen, which
Hiram breathed in the abysmal ear of Solomon—You don't attend.
Psha! you have drunk too much wine!" Perhaps I may as well own
that I was NOT attending, for he had been carrying on for about
fifty-seven minutes; and I don't like a man to have ALL the talk to
"Blanche de Bechamel was wild, then, about this secret of Masonry.
In early, early days I loved, I married a girl fair as Blanche,
who, too, was tormented by curiosity, who, too, would peep into my
closet, into the only secret guarded from her. A dreadful fate
befell poor Fatima. An ACCIDENT shortened her life. Poor thing!
she had a foolish sister who urged her on. I always told her to
beware of Ann. She died. They said her brothers killed me. A
gross falsehood. AM I dead? If I were, could I pledge you in this
"Was your name," I asked, quite bewildered, "was your name, pray,
then, ever Blueb——?"
"Hush! the waiter will overhear you. Methought we were speaking of
Blanche de Bechamel. I loved her, young man. My pearls, and
diamonds, and treasure, my wit, my wisdom, my passion, I flung them
all into the child's lap. I was a fool. Was strong Samson not as
weak as I? Was Solomon the Wise much better when Balkis wheedled
him? I said to the king—But enough of that, I spake of Blanche de
"Curiosity was the poor child's foible. I could see, as I talked
to her, that her thoughts were elsewhere (as yours, my friend, have
been absent once or twice to-night). To know the secret of Masonry
was the wretched child's mad desire. With a thousand wiles,
smiles, caresses, she strove to coax it from me—from ME—ha! ha!
"I had an apprentice—the son of a dear friend, who died by my side
at Rossbach, when Soubise, with whose army I happened to be,
suffered a dreadful defeat for neglecting my advice. The Young
Chevalier Goby de Mouchy was glad enough to serve as my clerk, and
help in some chemical experiments in which I was engaged with my
friend Dr. Mesmer. Bathilde saw this young man. Since women were,
has it not been their business to smile and deceive, to fondle and
lure? Away! From the very first it has been so!" And as my
companion spoke, he looked as wicked as the serpent that coiled
round the tree, and hissed a poisoned counsel to the first woman.
"One evening I went, as was my wont, to see Blanche. She was
radiant: she was wild with spirits: a saucy triumph blazed in her
blue eyes. She talked, she rattled in her childish way. She
uttered, in the course of her rhapsody, a hint—an intimation—so
terrible that the truth flashed across me in a moment. Did I ask
her? She would lie to me. But I knew how to make falsehood
impossible. And I ordered her to go to sleep."
At this moment the clock (after its previous convulsions) sounded
TWELVE. And as the new Editor* of the Cornhill Magazine—and HE, I
promise you, won't stand any nonsense—will only allow seven pages,
I am obliged to leave off at THE VERY MOST INTERESTING POINT OF THE
* Mr. Thackeray retired from the Editorship of the Cornhill
Magazine in March, 1862
"Are you of our fraternity? I see you are not. The secret which
Mademoiselle de Bechamel confided to me in her mad triumph and wild
hoyden spirits—she was but a child, poor thing, poor thing, scarce
fifteen;—but I love them young—a folly not unusual with the old!"
(Here Mr. Pinto thrust his knuckles into his hollow eyes; and, I am
sorry to say, so little regardful was he of personal cleanliness,
that his tears made streaks of white over his guarled dark hands.)
"Ah, at fifteen, poor child, thy fate was terrible! Go to! It is
not good to love me, friend. They prosper not who do. I divine
you. You need not say what you are thinking—"
In truth, I was thinking, if girls fall in love with this sallow,
hook-nosed, glass-eyed, wooden-legged, dirty, hideous old man, with
the sham teeth, they have a queer taste. THAT is what I was
"Jack Wilkes said the handsomest man in London had but half an
hour's start of him. And, without vanity, I am scarcely uglier
than Jack Wilkes. We were members of the same club at Medenham
Abbey, Jack and I, and had many a merry night together. Well, sir,
I—Mary of Scotland knew me but as a little hunchbacked music
master; and yet, and yet, I think she was not indifferent to her
David Riz—and SHE came to misfortune. They all do—they all do!"
"Sir, you are wandering from your point!" I said, with some
severity. For, really, for this old humbug to hint that he had
been the baboon who frightened the club at Medenham, that he had
been in the Inquisition at Valladolid—that under the name of D.
Riz, as he called it, he had known the lovely Queen of Scots—was a
LITTLE too much. "Sir," then I said, "you were speaking about a
Miss Bechamel. I really have not time to hear all of your
"Faith, the good wine gets into my head." (I should think so, the
old toper! Four bottles all but two glasses.) "To return to poor
Blanche. As I sat laughing, joking with her, she let slip a word,
a little word, which filled me with dismay. Some one had told her
a part of the Secret—the secret which has been divulged scarce
thrice in three thousand years—the Secret of the Freemasons. Do
you know what happens to those uninitiate who learn that secret? to
those wretched men, the initiate who reveal it?"
As Pinto spoke to me, he looked through and through me with his
horrible piercing glance, so that I sat quite uneasily on my bench.
He continued: "Did I question her awake? I knew she would lie to
me. Poor child! I loved her no less because I did not believe a
word she said. I loved her blue eye, her golden hair, her
delicious voice, that was true in song, though when she spoke,
false as Eblis! You are aware that I possess in rather a
remarkable degree what we have agreed to call the mesmeric power.
I set the unhappy girl to sleep. THEN she was obliged to tell me
all. It was as I had surmised. Goby de Mouchy, my wretched,
besotted miserable secretary, in his visits to the chateau of the
Marquis de Bechamel, who was one of our society, had seen Blanche.
I suppose it was because she had been warned that he was worthless,
and poor, artful and a coward, she loved him. She wormed out of
the besotted wretch the secrets of our Order. 'Did he tell you the
NUMBER ONE?' I asked.
"She said, 'Yes.'
"'Did he,' I further inquired, 'tell you the—'
"'Oh, don't ask me, don't ask me!' she said, writhing on the sofa,
where she lay in the presence of the Marquis de Bechamel, her most
unhappy father. Poor Bechamel, poor Bechamel! How pale he looked
as I spoke! 'Did he tell you,' I repeated with a dreadful calm,
'the NUMBER TWO?' She said, 'Yes.'
"The poor old marquis rose up, and clasping his hands, fell on his
knees before Count Cagl—— Bah! I went by a different name then.
Vat's in a name? Dat vich ye call a Rosicrucian by any other name
vil smell as sveet. 'Monsieur,' he said, 'I am old—I am rich. I
have five hundred thousand livres of rentes in Picardy. I have
half as much in Artois. I have two hundred and eighty thousand on
the Grand Livre. I am promised by my Sovereign a dukedom and his
orders with a reversion to my heir. I am a Grandee of Spain of the
First Class, and Duke of Volovento. Take my titles, my ready
money, my life, my honor, everything I have in the world, but don't
ask the THIRD QUESTION.'
"'Godfroid de Bouillon, Comte de Bechamel, Grandee of Spain and
Prince of Volovento, in our Assembly what was the oath you swore?'
The old man writhed as he remembered its terrific purport.
"Though my heart was racked with agony, and I would have died, aye,
cheerfully" (died, indeed, as if THAT were a penalty!) "to spare
yonder lovely child a pang, I said to her calmly, 'Blanche de
Bechamel, did Goby de Mouchy tell you secret NUMBER THREE?'
"She whispered a oui that was quite faint, faint and small. But
her poor father fell in convulsions at her feet.
"She died suddenly that night. Did I not tell you those I love
come to no good? When General Bonaparte crossed the Saint Bernard,
he saw in the convent an old monk with a white beard, wandering
about the corridors, cheerful and rather stout, but mad—mad as a
March hare. 'General,' I said to him, 'did you ever see that face
before?' He had not. He had not mingled much with the higher
classes of our society before the Revolution. I knew the poor old
man well enough; he was the last of a noble race, and I loved his
"And did she die by—?"
"Man! did I say so? Do I whisper the secrets of the Vehmgericht?
I say she died that night: and he—he, the heartless, the villain,
the betrayer,—you saw him seated in yonder curiosity shop, by
yonder guillotine, with his scoundrelly head in his lap.
"You saw how slight that instrument was? It was one of the first
which Guillotin made, and which he showed to private friends in a
hangar in the Rue Picpus, where he lived. The invention created
some little conversation among scientific men at the time, though I
remember a machine in Edinburgh of a very similar construction, two
hundred—well, many, many years ago—and at a breakfast which
Guillotin gave he showed us the instrument, and much talk arose
among us as to whether people suffered under it.
"And now I must tell you what befell the traitor who had caused all
this suffering. Did he know that the poor child's death was a
SENTENCE? He felt a cowardly satisfaction that with her was gone
the secret of his treason. Then he began to doubt. I had MEANS to
penetrate all his thoughts, as well as to know his acts. Then he
became a slave to a horrible fear. He fled in abject terror to a
convent. They still existed in Paris; and behind the walls of
Jacobins the wretch thought himself secure. Poor fool! I had but
to set one of my somnambulists to sleep. Her spirit went forth and
spied the shuddering wretch in his cell. She described the street,
the gate, the convent, the very dress which he wore, and which you
"And now THIS is what happened. In his chamber in the Rue St.
Honore, at Paris, sat a man ALONE—a man who has been maligned, a
man who has been called a knave and charlatan, a man who has been
persecuted even to the death, it is said, in Roman Inquisitions,
forsooth, and elsewhere. Ha! ha! A man who has a mighty will.
"And looking toward the Jacobins Convent (of which, from his
chamber, he could see the spires and trees), this man WILLED. And
it was not yet dawn. And he willed; and one who was lying in his
cell in the convent of Jacobins, awake and shuddering with terror
for a crime which he had committed, fell asleep.
"But though he was asleep his eyes were open.
"And after tossing and writhing, and clinging to the pallet, and
saying 'No, I will not go,' he rose up and donned his clothes—a
gray coat, a vest of white pique, black satin small-clothes, ribbed
silk stockings, and a white stock with a steel buckle; and he
arranged his hair, and he tied his queue, all the while being in
that strange somnolence which walks, which moves, which FLIES
sometimes, which sees, which is indifferent to pain, which OBEYS.
And he put on his hat, and he went forth from his cell: and though
the dawn was not yet, he trod the corridors as seeing them. And he
passed into the cloister, and then into the garden where lie the
ancient dead. And he came to the wicket, which Brother Jerome was
opening just at the dawning. And the crowd was already waiting
with their cans and bowls to receive the alms of the good brethren.
"And he passed through the crowd and went on his way, and the few
people then abroad who marked him, said, 'Tiens! How very odd he
looks! He looks like a man walking in his sleep!' This was said
by various persons:—
"By milk women, with their cans and carts, coming into the town.
"By roysterers who had been drinking at the taverns of the Barrier,
for it was Mid-Lent.
"By the sergeants of the watch, who eyed him sternly as he passed
near their halberds.
"But he passed on unmoved by their halberds,
"Unmoved by the cries of the roysterers,
"By the market women coming with their milk and eggs.
"He walked through the Rue St. Honore, I say:—
"By the Rue Rambuteau,
"By the Rue St. Antoine,
"By the King's Chateau of the Bastille,
"By the Faubourg St. Antoine.
"And he came to No. 29 in the Rue Picpus—a house which then stood
between a court and garden—
"That is, there was a building of one story, with a great coach
"Then there was a court, around which were stables, coach-houses,
"Then there was a house—a two-storied house, with a perron in
"Behind the house was a garden—a garden of two hundred and fifty
French feet in length.
"And as one hundred feet of France equal one hundred and six feet
of England, this garden, my friend, equaled exactly two hundred and
sixty-five feet of British measure.
"In the center of the garden was a fountain and a statue—or, to
speak more correctly, two statues. One was recumbent,—a man.
Over him, saber in hand, stood a Woman.
"The man was Olofernes. The woman was Judith. From the head, from
the trunk, the water gushed. It was the taste of the doctor:—was
it not a droll of taste?
"At the end of the garden was the doctor's cabinet of study. My
faith, a singular cabinet, and singular pictures!—
"Decapitation of Charles Premier at Vitehall.
"Decapitation of Montrose at Edimbourg.
"Decapitation of Cinq Mars. When I tell you that he was a man of
"Through this garden, by these statues, up these stairs, went the
pale figure of him who, the porter said, knew the way of the house.
He did. Turning neither right nor left, he seemed to walk THROUGH
the statues, the obstacles, the flower beds, the stairs, the door,
the tables, the chairs.
"In the corner of the room was THAT INSTRUMENT, which Guillotin had
just invented and perfected. One day he was to lay his own head
under his own ax. Peace be to his name! With him I deal not!
"In a frame of mahogany, neatly worked, was a board with a half
circle in it, over which another board fitted. Above was a heavy
ax, which fell—you know how. It was held up by a rope, and when
this rope was untied, or cut, the steel fell.
"To the story which I now have to relate, you may give credence, or
not, as you will. The sleeping man went up to that instrument.
"He laid his head in it, asleep."
"He then took a little penknife out of the pocket of his white
"He cut the rope asleep.
"The ax descended on the head of the traitor and villain. The
notch in it was made by the steel buckle of his stock, which was
"A strange legend has got abroad that after the deed was done, the
figure rose, took the head from the basket, walked forth through
the garden, and by the screaming porters at the gate, and went and
laid itself down at the Morgue. But for this I will not vouch.
Only of this be sure. 'There are more things in heaven and earth,
Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.' More and more
the light peeps through the chinks. Soon, amidst music ravishing,
the curtain will rise, and the glorious scene be displayed. Adieu!
Remember me. Ha! 'tis dawn," Pinto said. And he was gone.
I am ashamed to say that my first movement was to clutch the check
which he had left with me, and which I was determined to present
the very moment the bank opened. I know the importance of these
things, and that men change their mind sometimes. I sprang through
the streets to the great banking house of Manasseh in Duke Street.
It seemed to me as if I actually flew as I walked. As the clock
struck ten I was at the counter and laid down my check.
The gentleman who received it, who was one of the Hebrew
persuasion, as were the other two hundred clerks of the
establishment, having looked at the draft with terror in his
countenance, then looked at me, then called to himself two of his
fellow clerks, and queer it was to see all their aquiline beaks
over the paper.
"Come, come!" said I, "don't keep me here all day. Hand me over
the money, short, if you please!" for I was, you see, a little
alarmed, and so determined to assume some extra bluster.
"Will you have the kindness to step into the parlor to the
partners?" the clerk said, and I followed him.
"What, AGAIN?" shrieked a bald-headed, red-whiskered gentleman,
whom I knew to be Mr. Manasseh. "Mr. Salathiel, this is too bad!
Leave me with this gentleman, S." And the clerk disappeared.
"Sir," he said, "I know how you came by this: the Count de Pinto
gave it you. It is too bad! I honor my parents; I honor THEIR
parents; I honor their bills! But this one of grandma's is too
bad—it is, upon my word, now! She've been dead these five-and-
thirty years. And this last four months she has left her burial
place and took to drawing on our 'ouse! It's too bad, grandma; it
is too bad!" and he appealed to me, and tears actually trickled
down his nose.
"Is it the Countess Sidonia's check or not?" I asked, haughtily.
"But, I tell you, she's dead! It's a shame!—it's a shame!—it is,
grandmamma!" and he cried, and wiped his great nose in his yellow
pocket handkerchief. "Look year—will you take pounds instead of
guineas? She's dead, I tell you! It's no go! Take the pounds—
one tausend pound!—ten nice, neat, crisp hundred-pound notes, and
go away vid you, do!"
"I will have my bond, sir, or nothing," I said; and I put on an
attitude of resolution which I confess surprised even myself.
"Wery veil," he shrieked, with many oaths, "then you shall have
noting—ha, ha, ha!—noting but a policeman! Mr. Abednego, call a
policeman! Take that, you humbug and impostor!" and here with an
abundance of frightful language which I dare not repeat, the
wealthy banker abused and defied me.
Au bout du compte, what was I to do, if a banker did not choose to
honor a check drawn by his dead grandmother? I began to wish I had
my snuff-box back. I began to think I was a fool for changing that
little old-fashioned gold for
this slip of strange paper.
Meanwhile the banker had passed from his fit of anger to a paroxysm
of despair. He seemed to be addressing some person invisible, but
in the room: "Look here, ma'am, you've really been coming it too
strong. A hundred thousand in six months, and now a thousand more!
The 'ouse can't stand it; it WON'T stand it, I say! What? Oh!
As he uttered these words, A HAND fluttered over the table in the
air! It was a female hand: that which I had seen the night before.
That female hand took a pen from the green baize table, dipped it
in a silver inkstand, and wrote on a quarter of a sheet of foolscap
on the blotting book, "How about the diamond robbery? If you do
not pay, I will tell him where they are."
What diamonds? what robbery? what was this mystery? That will
never be ascertained, for the wretched man's demeanor instantly
changed. "Certainly, sir;—oh, certainly," he said, forcing a
grin. "How will you have the money, sir? All right, Mr. Abednego.
This way out."
"I hope I shall often see you again," I said; on which I own poor
Manasseh gave a dreadful grin, and shot back into his parlor.
I ran home, clutching the ten delicious, crisp hundred pounds, and
the dear little fifty which made up the account. I flew through
the streets again. I got to my chambers. I bolted the outer
doors. I sank back in my great chair, and slept. . . .
My first thing on waking was to feel for my money. Perdition!
Where was I? Ha!—on the table before me was my grandmother's
snuff-box, and by its side one of those awful—those admirable—
sensation novels, which I had been reading, and which are full of
But that the guillotine is still to be seen at Mr. Gale's, No. 47,
High Holborn, I give you MY HONOR. I suppose I was dreaming about
it. I don't know. What is dreaming? What is life? Why shouldn't
I sleep on the ceiling?—and am I sitting on it now, or on the
floor? I am puzzled. But enough. If the fashion for sensation
novels goes on, I tell you I will write one in fifty volumes. For
the present, DIXI. But between ourselves, this Pinto, who fought
at the Colosseum, who was nearly being roasted by the Inquisition,
and sang duets at Holyrood, I am rather sorry to lose him after
three little bits of Roundabout Papers. Et vous?