THE PURLOINED LETTER
THE PURLOINED LETTER
Edgar Allan Poe, 1845
Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.
AT Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18--, I
was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in
company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library,
or book-closet, au troisieme, No. 33, Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain.
For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while
each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and
exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed
the atmosphere of the chamber. For myself, however, I was mentally
discussing certain topics which had formed matter for conversation
between us at an earlier period of the evening; I mean the affair of
the Rue Morgue, and the mystery attending the murder of Marie Roget. I
looked upon it, therefore, as something of a coincidence, when the
door of our apartment was thrown open and admitted our old
acquaintance, Monsieur G--, the Prefect of the Parisian police.
We gave him a hearty welcome; for there was nearly half as much of
the entertaining as of the contemptible about the man, and we had
not seen him for several years. We had been sitting in the dark, and
Dupin now arose for the purpose of lighting a lamp, but sat down
again, without doing so, upon G.'s saying that he had called to
consult us, or rather to ask the opinion of my friend, about some
official business which had occasioned a great deal of trouble.
"If it is any point requiring reflection," observed Dupin, as he
forbore to enkindle the wick, "we shall examine it to better purpose
in the dark."
"That is another of your odd notions," said the Prefect, who had a
fashion of calling every thing "odd" that was beyond his
comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of "oddities."
"Very true," said Dupin, as he supplied his visitor with a pipe,
and rolled towards him a comfortable chair.
"And what is the difficulty now?" I asked. "Nothing more in the
assassination way, I hope?"
"Oh no; nothing of that nature. The fact is, the business is
very simple indeed, and I make no doubt that we can manage it
sufficiently well ourselves; but then I thought Dupin would like to
hear the details of it, because it is so excessively odd."
"Simple and odd," said Dupin.
"Why, yes; and not exactly that, either. The fact is, we have
all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and
yet baffles us altogether."
"Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you
at fault," said my friend.
"What nonsense you do talk!" replied the Prefect, laughing
"Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain," said Dupin.
"Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?"
"A little too self-evident."
"Ha! ha! ha! --ha! ha! ha! --ho! ho! ho!" --roared our visitor,
profoundly amused, "oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!"
"And what, after all, is the matter on hand?" I asked.
"Why, I will tell you," replied the Prefect, as he gave a long,
steady, and contemplative puff, and settled himself in his chair. "I
will tell you in a few words; but, before I begin, let me caution
you that this is an affair demanding the greatest secrecy, and that
I should most probably lose the position I now hold, were it known
that I confided it to any one.
"Proceed," said I.
"Or not," said Dupin.
"Well, then; I have received personal information, from a very
high quarter, that a certain document of the last importance, has been
purloined from the royal apartments. The individual who purloined it
is known; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it. It is known,
also, that it still remains in his possession."
"How is this known?" asked Dupin.
"It is clearly inferred," replied the Prefect, "from the nature of
the document, and from the nonappearance of certain results which
would at once arise from its passing out of the robber's possession;
--that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end
to employ it."
"Be a little more explicit," I said.
"Well, I may venture so far as to say that the paper gives its
holder a certain power in a certain quarter where such power is
immensely valuable." The Prefect was fond of the cant of diplomacy.
"Still I do not quite understand," said Dupin.
"No? Well; the disclosure of the document to a third person, who
shall be nameless, would bring in question the honor of a personage of
most exalted station; and this fact gives the holder of the document
an ascendancy over the illustrious personage whose honor and peace are
"But this ascendancy," I interposed, "would depend upon the
robber's knowledge of the loser's knowledge of the robber. Who would
"The thief," said G., is the Minister D--, who dares all things,
those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man. The method of the
theft was not less ingenious than bold. The document in question --a
letter, to be frank --had been received by the personage robbed
while alone in the royal boudoir. During its perusal she was
suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the other exalted personage
from whom especially it was her wish to conceal it. After a hurried
and vain endeavor to thrust it in a drawer, she was forced to place
it, open as it was, upon a table. The address, however, was uppermost,
and, the contents thus unexposed, the letter escaped notice. At this
juncture enters the Minister D--. His lynx eye immediately perceives
the paper, recognises the handwriting of the address, observes the
confusion of the personage addressed, and fathoms her secret. After
some business transactions, hurried through in his ordinary manner, he
produces a letter somewhat similar to the one in question, opens it,
pretends to read it, and then places it in close juxtaposition to
the other. Again he converses, for some fifteen minutes, upon the
public affairs. At length, in taking leave, he takes also from the
table the letter to which he had no claim. Its rightful owner saw,
but, of course, dared not call attention to the act, in the presence
of the third personage who stood at her elbow. The minister
decamped; leaving his own letter --one of no importance --upon the
"Here, then," said Dupin to me, "you have precisely what you
demand to make the ascendancy complete --the robber's knowledge of the
loser's knowledge of the robber."
"Yes," replied the Prefect; "and the power thus attained has,
for some months past, been wielded, for political purposes, to a
very dangerous extent. The personage robbed is more thoroughly
convinced, every day, of the necessity of reclaiming her letter. But
this, of course, cannot be done openly. In fine, driven to despair,
she has committed the matter to me."
"Than whom," said Dupin, amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke, "no
more sagacious agent could, I suppose, be desired, or even imagined."
"You flatter me," replied the Prefect; "but it is possible that
some such opinion may have been entertained."
"It is clear," said I, "as you observe, that the letter is still
in possession of the minister; since it is this possession, and not
any employment of the letter, which bestows the power. With the
employment the power departs."
"True," said G. "and upon this conviction I proceeded. My first
care was to make thorough search of the minister's hotel; and here
my chief embarrassment lay in the necessity of searching without his
knowledge. Beyond all things, I have been warned of the danger which
would result from giving him reason to suspect our design."
"But," said I, "you are quite au fait in these investigations. The
Parisian police have done this thing often before."
"Oh yes; and for this reason I did not despair. The habits of
the minister gave me, too, a great advantage. He is frequently
absent from home all night. His servants are by no means numerous.
They sleep at a distance from their master's apartment, and, being
chiefly Neapolitans, are readily made drunk. I have keys, as you know,
with which I can open any chamber or cabinet in Paris. For three
months a night has not passed, during the greater part of which I have
not been engaged, personally, in ransacking the D-- Hotel. My honor
is interested, and, to mention a great secret, the reward is enormous.
So I did not abandon the search until I had become fully satisfied
that the thief is a more astute man than myself. I fancy that I have
investigated every nook and corner of the premises in which it is
possible that the paper can be concealed."
"But is it not possible," I suggested, "that although the letter
may be in possession of the minister, as it unquestionably is, he
may have concealed it elsewhere than upon his own premises?"
"This is barely possible," said Dupin. "The present peculiar
condition of affairs at court, and especially of those intrigues in
which D-- is known to be involved, would render the instant
availability of the document --its susceptibility of being produced at
a moment's notice --a point of nearly equal importance with its
"Its susceptibility of being produced?" said I.
"That is to say, of being destroyed," said Dupin.
"True," I observed; "the paper is clearly then upon the
premises. As for its being upon the person of the minister, we may
consider that as out of the question."
"Entirely," said the Prefect. "He has been twice waylaid, as if by
footpads, and his person rigorously searched under my own inspection.
"You might have spared yourself this trouble," said Dupin. "D--, I
presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have
anticipated these waylayings, as a matter of course."
"Not altogether a fool," said G., "but then he's a poet, which I
take to be only one remove from a fool."
"True," said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff from his
meerschaum, "although I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself."
"Suppose you detail," said I, "the particulars of your search."
"Why the fact is, we took our time, and we searched every where. I
have had long experience in these affairs. I took the entire building,
room by room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We
examined, first, the furniture of each apartment. We opened every
possible drawer; and I presume you know that, to a properly trained
police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man
is a dolt who permits a 'secret' drawer to escape him in a search of
this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk
--of space --to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have
accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us. After
the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the
fine long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we
removed the tops."
"Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece
of furniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an
article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the
cavity, and the top replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are
employed in the same way."
"But could not the cavity be detected by sounding?" I asked.
"By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient
wadding of cotton be placed around it. Besides, in our case, we were
obliged to proceed without noise."
"But you could not have removed --you could not have taken to
pieces all articles of furniture in which it would have been
possible to make a deposit in the manner you mention. A letter may
be compressed into a thin spiral roll, not differing much in shape
or bulk from a large knitting-needle, and in this form it might be
inserted into the rung of a chair, for example. You did not take to
pieces all the chairs?"
"Certainly not; but we did better --we examined the rungs of every
chair in the hotel, and, indeed, the jointings of every description of
furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been
any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect
it instantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have
been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing --any unusual
gaping in the joints --would have sufficed to insure detection."
"I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the
plates, and you probed the beds and the bed-clothes, as well as the
curtains and carpets."
"That of course; and when we had absolutely completed every
particle of the furniture in this way, then we examined the house
itself. We divided its entire surface into compartments, which we
numbered, so that none might be missed; then we scrutinized each
individual square inch throughout the premises, including the two
houses immediately adjoining, with the microscope, as before."
"The two houses adjoining!" I exclaimed; "you must have had a
great deal of trouble."
"We had; but the reward offered is prodigious.
"You include the grounds about the houses?"
"All the grounds are paved with brick. They gave us
comparatively little trouble. We examined the moss between the bricks,
and found it undisturbed."
"You looked among D--'s papers, of course, and into the books of
"Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened
every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not
contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of
some of our police officers. We also measured the thickness of every
book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to
each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the
bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly
impossible that the fact should have escaped observation. Some five or
six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed,
longitudinally, with the needles."
"You explored the floors beneath the carpets?"
"Beyond doubt. We removed every carpet, and examined the boards
with the microscope."
"And the paper on the walls?"
"You looked into the cellars?"
"Then," I said, "you have been making a miscalculation, and the
letter is not upon the premises, as you suppose.
"I fear you are right there," said the Prefect. "And now, Dupin,
what would you advise me to do?"
"To make a thorough re-search of the premises."
"That is absolutely needless," replied G--. "I am not more sure
that I breathe than I am that the letter is not at the Hotel."
"I have no better advice to give you," said Dupin. "You have, of
course, an accurate description of the letter?"
"Oh yes!" --And here the Prefect, producing a memorandum-book,
proceeded to read aloud a minute account of the internal, and
especially of the external appearance of the missing document. Soon
after finishing the perusal of this description, he took his
departure, more entirely depressed in spirits than I had ever known
the good gentleman before.
In about a month afterwards he paid us another visit, and found us
occupied very nearly as before. He took a pipe and a chair and entered
into some ordinary conversation. At length I said,--
"Well, but G--, what of the purloined letter? I presume you have
at last made up your mind that there is no such thing as
overreaching the Minister?"
"Confound him, say I --yes; I made the reexamination, however,
as Dupin suggested --but it was all labor lost, as I knew it would
"How much was the reward offered, did you say?" asked Dupin.
"Why, a very great deal --a very liberal reward --I don't like
to say how much, precisely; but one thing I will say, that I
wouldn't mind giving my individual check for fifty thousand francs
to any one who could obtain me that letter. The fact is, it is
becoming of more and more importance every day; and the reward has
been lately doubled. If it were trebled, however, I could do no more
than I have done."
"Why, yes," said Dupin, drawlingly, between the whiffs of his
meerschaum, "I really --think, G--, you have not exerted
yourself--to the utmost in this matter. You might --do a little
more, I think, eh?"
"How? --In what way?"
"Why --puff, puff --you might --puff, puff --employ counsel in the
matter, eh? --puff, puff, puff. Do you remember the story they tell of
"No; hang Abernethy!"
"To be sure! hang him and welcome. But, once upon a time, a
certain rich miser conceived the design of spunging upon this
Abernethy for a medical opinion. Getting up, for this purpose, an
ordinary conversation in a private company, he insinuated his case
to the physician, as that of an imaginary individual.
"'We will suppose,' said the miser, 'that his symptoms are such
and such; now, doctor, what would you have directed him to take?'
"'Take!' said Abernethy, 'why, take advice, to be sure.'"
"But," said the Prefect, a little discomposed, "I am perfectly
willing to take advice, and to pay for it. I would really give fifty
thousand francs to any one who would aid me in the matter."
"In that case," replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and producing a
check-book, "you may as well fill me up a check for the amount
mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter."
I was astounded. The Prefect appeared absolutely
thunderstricken. For some minutes he remained speechless and
motionless, less, looking incredulously at my friend with open
mouth, and eyes that seemed starting from their sockets; then,
apparently in some measure, he seized a pen, and after several
pauses and vacant stares, finally filled up and signed a check for
fifty thousand francs, and handed it across the table to Dupin. The
latter examined it carefully and deposited it in his pocket-book;
then, unlocking an escritoire, took thence a letter and gave it to the
Prefect. This functionary grasped it in a perfect agony of joy, opened
it with a trembling hand, cast a rapid glance at its contents, and
then, scrambling and struggling to the door, rushed at length
unceremoniously from the room and from the house, without having
uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fill up the check.
When he had gone, my friend entered into some explanations.
"The Parisian police," he said, "are exceedingly able in their
way. They are persevering, ingenious, cunning, and thoroughly versed
in the knowledge which their duties seem chiefly to demand. Thus, when
G-- detailed to us his mode of searching the premises at the Hotel D--,
I felt entire confidence in his having made a satisfactory
investigation --so far as his labors extended."
"So far as his labors extended?" said I.
"Yes," said Dupin. "The measures adopted were not only the best of
their kind, but carried out to absolute perfection. Had the letter
been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows
would, beyond a question, have found it."
I merely laughed --but he seemed quite serious in all that he
"The measures, then," he continued, "were good in their kind,
and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the
case, and to the man. A certain set of highly ingenious resources are,
with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly
adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too
shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better
reasoner than he. I knew one about eight years of age, whose success
at guessing in the game of 'even and odd' attracted universal
admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One
player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of
another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the
guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won
all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of
guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the
astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his
opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, 'are they even or
odd?' Our schoolboy replies, 'odd,' and loses; but upon the second
trial he wins, for he then says to himself, the simpleton had them
even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just
sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore
guess odd'; --he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree
above the first, he would have reasoned thus: 'This fellow finds
that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he
will propose to himself upon the first impulse, a simple variation
from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second
thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and
finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will
therefore guess even' guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of
reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed "lucky," --what,
in its last analysis, is it?"
"It is merely," I said, "an identification of the reasoner's
intellect with that of his opponent."
"It is," said Dupin;" and, upon inquiring of the boy by what means
he effected the thorough identification in which his success
consisted, I received answer as follows: 'When I wish to find out
how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or
what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my
face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression
of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my
mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.' This
response of the schoolboy lies at the bottom of all the spurious
profundity which has been attributed to Rochefoucauld, to La
Bougive, to Machiavelli, and to Campanella."
"And the identification," I said, "of the reasoner's intellect
with that of his opponent, depends, if I understand you aright upon
the accuracy with which the opponent's intellect is admeasured."
"For its practical value it depends upon this," replied Dupin; and
the Prefect and his cohort fall so frequently, first, by default of
this identification, and, secondly, by ill-admeasurement, or rather
through non-admeasurement, of the intellect with which they are
engaged. They consider only their own ideas of ingenuity; and, in
searching for anything hidden, advert only to the modes in which
they would have hidden it. They are right in this much --that their
own ingenuity is a faithful representative of that of the mass; but
when the cunning of the individual felon is diverse in character
from their own, the felon foils them, of course. This always happens
when it is above their own, and very usually when it is below. They
have no variation of principle in their investigations; at best,
when urged by some unusual emergency --by some extraordinary reward
--they extend or exaggerate their old modes of practice, without
touching their principles. What, for example, in this case of D--, has
been done to vary the principle of action? What is all this boring,
and probing, and sounding, and scrutinizing with the microscope, and
dividing the surface of the building into registered square inches
--what is it all but an exaggeration of the application of the one
principle or set of principles of search, which are based upon the one
set of notions regarding human ingenuity, to which the Prefect, in the
long routine of his duty, has been accustomed? Do you not see he has
taken it for granted that all men proceed to conceal a letter, --not
exactly in a gimlet-hole bored in a chair-leg --but, at least, in some
hole or corner suggested by the same tenor of thought which would urge
a man to secrete a letter in a gimlet-hole bored in a chair-leg? And
do you not see also, that such recherches nooks for concealment are
adapted only for ordinary occasions, and would be adopted only by
ordinary intellects; for, in all cases of concealment, a disposal of
the article concealed --a disposal of it in this recherche manner,
--is, in the very first instance, presumable and presumed; and thus
its discovery depends, not at all upon the acumen, but altogether upon
the mere care, patience, and determination of the seekers; and where
the case is of importance --or, what amounts to the same thing in
the policial eyes, when the reward is of magnitude, --the qualities in
question have never been known to fall. You will now understand what I
meant in suggesting that, had the purloined letter been hidden
anywhere within the limits of the Prefect's examination --in other
words, had the principle of its concealment been comprehended within
the principles of the Prefect --its discovery would have been a matter
altogether beyond question. This functionary, however, has been
thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in
the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired
renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and
he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring
that all poets are fools."
"But is this really the poet?" I asked. "There are two brothers, I
know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I
believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a
mathematician, and no poet."
"You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and
mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could
not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the
"You surprise me," I said, "by these opinions, which have been
contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at
naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason
has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.
"'Il y a a parier,'" replied Dupin, quoting from Chamfort, "'que
toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle
a convenu au plus grand nombre.' The mathematicians, I grant you, have
done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude,
and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth.
With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated
the term 'analysis' into application to algebra. The French are the
originators of this particular deception; but if a term is of any
importance --if words derive any value from applicability --then
'analysis' conveys 'algebra' about as much as, in Latin, 'ambitus'
implies 'ambition,' 'religio' religion or 'homines honesti,' a set
of honorable men."
"You have a quarrel on hand, I see," said I, "with some of the
algebraists of Paris; but proceed."
"I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason
which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly
logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical
study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity;
mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon
form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the
truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract or general truths.
And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the
universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms
are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation --of form
and quantity --is often grossly false in regard to morals, for
example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the
aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom
falls. In the consideration of motive it falls; for two motives,
each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united,
equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other
mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of
relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths,
through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general
applicability --as the world indeed imagines them to be. Bryant, in
his very learned 'Mythology,' mentions an analogous source of error,
when he says that 'although the Pagan fables are not believed, yet
we forget ourselves continually, and make inferences from them as
existing realities.' With the algebraists, however, who are Pagans
themselves, the 'Pagan fables' are believed, and the inferences are
made, not so much through lapse of memory, as through an unaccountable
addling of the brains. In short, I never yet encountered the mere
mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who
did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared
+ px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these
gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe
occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q,
and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as
speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock
I mean to say," continued Dupin, while I merely laughed at his
last observations, "that if the Minister had been no more than a
mathematician, the Prefect would have been under no necessity of
giving me this check. I knew him, however, as both mathematician and
poet, and my measures were adapted to his capacity, with reference
to the circumstances by which he was surrounded. I knew him as a
courtier, too, and as a bold intriguant. Such a man, I considered,
could not fall to be aware of the ordinary policial modes of action.
He could not have failed to anticipate --and events have proved that
he did not fail to anticipate --the waylayings to which he was
subjected. He must have foreseen, I reflected, the secret
investigations of his premises. His frequent absences from home at
night, which were hailed by the Prefect as certain aids to his
success, I regarded only as ruses, to afford opportunity for
thorough search to the police, and thus the sooner to impress them
with the conviction to which G--, in fact, did finally arrive --the
conviction that the letter was not upon the premises. I felt, also,
that the whole train of thought, which I was at some pains in
detailing to you just now, concerning the invariable principle of
policial action in searches for articles concealed --I felt that
this whole train of thought would necessarily pass through the mind of
the Minister. It would imperatively lead him to despise all the
ordinary nooks of concealment. He could not, I reflected, be so weak
as not to see that the most intricate and remote recess of his hotel
would be as open as his commonest closets to the eyes, to the
probes, to the gimlets, and to the microscopes of the Prefect. I
saw, in fine, that he would be driven, as a matter of course, to
simplicity, if not deliberately induced to it as a matter of choice.
You will remember, perhaps, how desperately the Prefect laughed when I
suggested, upon our first interview, that it was just possible this
mystery troubled him so much on account of its being so very
"Yes," said I, "I remember his merriment well. I really thought he
would have fallen into convulsions."
"The material world," continued Dupin, "abounds with very strict
analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been
given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made
to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description.
The principle of the vis inertiae, for example, seems to be
identical in physics and metaphysics. It is not more true in the
former, that a large body is with more difficulty set in motion than a
smaller one, and that its subsequent momentum is commensurate with
this difficulty, than it is, in the latter, that intellects of the
vaster capacity, while more forcible, more constant, and more eventful
in their movements than those of inferior grade, are yet the less
readily moved, and more embarrassed and full of hesitation in the
first few steps of their progress. Again: have you ever noticed
which of the street signs, over the shop doors, are the most
attractive of attention?"
"I have never given the matter a thought," I said.
"There is a game of puzzles," he resumed, "which is played upon
a map. One party playing requires another to find a given word --the
name of town, river, state or empire --any word, in short, upon the
motley and perplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game
generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most
minutely lettered names; but the adept selects such words as
stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the
other. These, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the
street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and
here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral
inapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed
those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably
self-evident. But this is a point, it appears, somewhat above or
beneath the understanding of the Prefect. He never once thought it
probable, or possible, that the Minister had deposited the letter
immediately beneath the nose of the whole world, by way of best
preventing any portion of that world from perceiving it.
"But the more I reflected upon the daring, dashing, and
discriminating ingenuity of D--; upon the fact that the document
must always have been at hand, if he intended to use it to good
purpose; and upon the decisive evidence, obtained by the Prefect, that
it was not hidden within the limits of that dignitary's ordinary
search --the more satisfied I became that, to conceal this letter, the
Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient
of not attempting to conceal it at all.
"Full of these ideas, I prepared myself with a pair of green
spectacles, and called one fine morning, quite by accident, at the
Ministerial hotel. I found D-- at home, yawning, lounging, and
dawdling, as usual, and pretending to be in the last extremity of
ennui. He is, perhaps, the most really energetic human being now alive
--but that is only when nobody sees him.
"To be even with him, I complained of my weak eyes, and lamented
the necessity of the spectacles, under cover of which I cautiously and
thoroughly surveyed the apartment, while seemingly intent only upon
the conversation of my host.
"I paid special attention to a large writing-table near which he
sat, and upon which lay confusedly, some miscellaneous letters and
other papers, with one or two musical instruments and a few books.
Here, however, after a long and very deliberate scrutiny, I saw
nothing to excite particular suspicion.
"At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon
a trumpery filigree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a
dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of
the mantelpiece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments,
were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was
much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across the middle
--as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as
worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second. It had a
large black seal, bearing the D-- cipher very conspicuously, and was
addressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D--, the minister, himself.
It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into
one of the upper divisions of the rack.
"No sooner had I glanced at this letter, than I concluded it to be
that of which I was in search. To be sure, it was, to all
appearance, radically different from the one of which the Prefect
had read us so minute a description. Here the seal was large and
black, with the D-- cipher; there it was small and red, with the
ducal arms of the S-- family. Here, the address, to the Minister, was
diminutive and feminine; there the superscription, to a certain
royal personage, was markedly bold and decided; the size alone
formed a point of correspondence. But, then, the radicalness of
these differences, which was excessive; the dirt; the soiled and
torn condition of the paper, so inconsistent with the true
methodical habits of D--, and so suggestive of a design to delude
the beholder into an idea of the worthlessness of the document;
these things, together with the hyperobtrusive situation of this
document, full in the view of every visitor, and thus exactly in
accordance with the conclusions to which I had previously arrived;
these things, I say, were strongly corroborative of suspicion, in
one who came with the intention to suspect.
"I protracted my visit as long as possible, and, while I
maintained a most animated discussion with the Minister, on a topic
which I knew well had never failed to interest and excite him, I
kept my attention really riveted upon the letter. In this examination,
I committed to memory its external appearance and arrangement in the
rack; and also fell, at length, upon a discovery which set at rest
whatever trivial doubt I might have entertained. In scrutinizing the
edges of the paper, I observed them to be more chafed than seemed
necessary. They presented the broken appearance which is manifested
when a stiff paper, having been once folded and pressed with a folder,
is refolded in a reversed direction, in the same creases or edges
which had formed the original fold. This discovery was sufficient.
It was clear to me that the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside
out, re-directed, and re-sealed. I bade the Minister good morning, and
took my departure at once, leaving a gold snuff-box upon the table.
"The next morning I called for the snuff-box, when we resumed,
quite eagerly, the conversation of the preceding day. While thus
engaged, however, a loud report, as if of a pistol, was heard
immediately beneath the windows of the hotel, and was succeeded by a
series of fearful screams, and the shoutings of a mob. D-- rushed to
a casement, threw it open, and looked out. In the meantime, I
stepped to the card-rack, took the letter, put it in my pocket, and
replaced it by a fac-simile, (so far as regards externals,) which I
had carefully prepared at my lodgings; imitating the D-- cipher, very
readily, by means of a seal formed of bread.
"The disturbance in the street had been occasioned by the
frantic behavior of a man with a musket. He had fired it among a crowd
of women and children. It proved, however, to have been without
ball, and the fellow was suffered to go his way as a lunatic or a
drunkard. When he had gone, D-came from the window, whither I had
followed him immediately upon securing the object in view. Soon
afterwards I bade him farewell. The pretended lunatic was a man in
my own pay.
"But what purpose had you," I asked, in replacing the letter by
a fac-simile? Would it not have been better, at the first visit, to
have seized it openly, and departed?"
"D--," replied Dupin, "is a desperate man, and a man of nerve. His
hotel, too, is not without attendants devoted to his interests. Had
I made the wild attempt you suggest, I might never have left the
Ministerial presence alive. The good people of Paris might have
heard of me no more. But I had an object apart from these
considerations. You know my political prepossessions. In this
matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned. For eighteen months
the Minister has had her in his power. She has now him in hers; since,
being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will
proceed with his exactions as if it was. Thus will he inevitably
commit himself, at once, to his political destruction. His downfall,
too, will not be more precipitate than awkward. It is all very well to
talk about the facilis descensus Averni; but in all kinds of climbing,
as Catalani said of singing, it is far more easy to get up than to
come down. In the present instance I have no sympathy --at least no
pity --for him who descends. He is the monstrum horrendum, an
unprincipled man of genius. I confess, however, that I should like
very well to know the precise character of his thoughts, when, being
defied by her whom the Prefect terms 'a certain personage,' he is
reduced to opening the letter which I left for him in the card-rack."
"How? did you put any thing particular in it?"
"Why --it did not seem altogether right to leave the interior
blank --that would have been insulting. D--, at Vienna once, did me an
evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should
remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard to
the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it a
pity not to give him a clue. He is well acquainted with my MS., and
I just copied into the middle of the blank sheet the words--
--Un dessein si funeste,
S'il n'est digne d'Atree, est digne de Thyeste.
They are to be found in Crebillon's 'Atree.'"