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The Lawyer's Story of a Stolen Letter

Wilkie Collins

  A Stolen Letter

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by

  I served my time—never mind in whose office—and I started in business for myself in one of our English country towns—I decline stating which. I hadn’t a farthing of capital, and my friends in the neighbourhood were poor and useless enough, with one exception.

  That exception was Mr Frank Gatliffe, son of Mr Gatliffe, member for the county, the richest man and the proudest for many a mile round about our parts.—Stop a bit, Mr Artist! you needn’t perk up and look knowing. You won’t trace any particulars by the name of Gatliffe. I’m not bound to commit myself or anybody else by mentioning names.

  I have given you the first that came into my head.

  Well, Mr Frank was a stanch friend of mine, and ready to recommend me whenever he got the chance. I had contrived to get him a little timely help—for a consideration, of course—in borrowing money at a fair rate of interest: in fact, I had saved him from the Jews. The money was borrowed while Mr Frank was at college. He came back from college, and stopped at home a little while, and then there got spread about all our neighbourhood a report that he had fallen in love, as the saying is, with his young sister’s governess, and that his mind was made up to marry her.—What! you’re at it again, Mr Artist! You want to know her name, don’t you? What do you think of Smith?

  Speaking as a lawyer, I consider Report, in a general way, to be a fool and a liar. But in this case report turned out to be something very different. Mr Frank told me he was really in love, and said upon his honour (an absurd expression which young chaps of his age are always using) he was determined to marry Smith the governess—the sweet darling girl, as he called her; but I’m not sentimental, and I call her Smith the governess. Well, Mr Frank’s father, being as proud as Lucifer, said ‘No’ as to marrying the governess, when Mr Frank wanted him to say ‘Yes.’ He was a man of business, was old Gatliffe, and he took the proper business course. He sent the governess away with a first-rate character and a spanking present, and then he looked about him to get something for Mr Frank to do. While he was looking about, Mr Frank bolted to London after the governess, who had nobody alive belonging to her to go to but an aunt—her father’s sister. The aunt refuses to let Mr Frank in without the squire’s permission. Mr Frank writes to his father, and says he will marry the girl as soon as he is of age, or shoot himself. Up to town comes the squire and his wife and his daughter, and a lot of sentimentality, not in the slightest degree material to the present statement, takes place among them; and the upshot of it is that old Gatliffe is forced into withdrawing the word No, and substituting the word Yes.

  I don’t believe he would ever have done it, though, but for one lucky peculiarity in the case. The governess’s father was a man of good family—pretty nigh as good as Gatliffe’s own. He had been in the army: had sold out: set up as a wine-merchant—failed—died: ditto his wife, as to the dying part of it. No relation, in fact, left for the squire to make inquiries about but the father’s sister—who had behaved, as old Gatliffe said, like a thorough-bred gentlewoman in shutting the door against Mr Frank in the first instance.

  So, to cut the matter short, things were at last made up pleasant enough. The time was fixed for the wedding, and an announcement about it—Marriage in High Life and all that—put into the county paper. There was a regular biography, besides, of the

  governess’s father, so as to stop people from talking—a great flourish about his pedigree, and a long account of his services in the army; but not a word, mind ye, of his having turned wine-merchant afterwards. Oh, no—not a word about that!

  I knew it, though, for Mr Frank told me. He hadn’t a bit of pride about him. He introduced me to his future wife one day when I met them out walking, and asked me if I did not think he was a lucky fellow. I don’t mind admitting that I did, and that I told him so. Ah! but she was one of my sort; was that governess. Stood, to the best of my recollection, five foot four. Good lissome figure, that looked as if it had never been boxed up in a pair of stays. Eyes that made me feel as if I was under a pretty stiff cross-examination the moment she looked at me. Fine red, fresh, kiss-and-come-again sort of lips. Cheeks and complexion—No, Mr Artist, you would’nt identify her by her cheeks and complexion, if I drew you a picture of them this very moment. She has had a family of children since the time I’m talking of, and her cheeks are a trifle fatter and her complexion is a shade or two redder now than when I first met her out walking with Mr Frank.

  The marriage was to take place on a Wednesday. I decline mentioning the year or the month. I had started as an attorney on my own account—say six weeks, more or less, and was sitting alone in my office on the Monday morning before the wedding-day, trying to see my way clear before me and not succeeding particularly well, when Mr Frank suddenly bursts in, as white as any ghost that ever was painted, and says he’s got the most dreadful case for me to advise on, and not an hour to lose in acting on my advice.

  ‘Is this in the way of business, Mr Frank?’ says I, stopping him just as he was beginning to get sentimental. ‘Yes or no, Mr Frank?’ rapping my new office paper-knife on the table to pull him up short all the sooner.

  ‘My dear fellow’—he was always familiar with me—‘it’s in the way of business, certainly; but friendship’—I was obliged to pull him up short again and regularly examine him as if he had been in the witness-box, or he would have kept me talking to no purpose half the day.

  ‘Now, Mr Frank,’ says I, ‘I can’t have any sentimentality mixed up with business matters. You please to stop talking, and let me ask questions. Answer in the fewest words you can use. Nod when nodding will do instead of words.’

  I fixed him with my eye for about three seconds, as he sat groaning and wriggling in his chair. When I’d done fixing him, I gave another rap with my paper-knife on the table to startle him up a bit. Then I went on.

  ‘From what you have been stating up to the present time,’ says I, ‘I gather that you are in a scrape which is likely to interfere seriously with your marriage on Wednesday?’

  (He nodded, and I cut in again before he could say a word):—‘The scrape affects your young lady, and goes back to the period of a transaction in which her late father was engaged, don’t it?’

  (He nods, and I cut in once more):—‘There is a party who turned up after seeing the announcement of your marriage in the paper, who is cognizant of what he oughtn’t to know, and #ho is prepared to use his knowledge of the same to the prejudice of the young lady and of your marriage, unless he receives a sum of money to quiet him? Very well.

  Now, first of all, Mr Frank, state what you have been told by the young lady herself about the transaction of her late father. How did you first come to have any knowledge of it?’

  ‘She was talking to me about her father one day so tenderly and prettily, that she quite excited my interest about him,’ begins Mr Frank; ‘and I asked her, among other things, what had occasioned his death. She said she believed it was distress of mind in the first instance; and added that this distress was connected with a shocking secret, which she and her mother had kept from everybody, but which she could not keep from me, because she was determined to begin her married life by having no secrets from her husband.’

  Here Mr Frank began to get sentimental again, and I pulled him up short once more with the paper-knife.

  ‘She told me,’ Mr Frank went on, ‘that the great mistake of her father’s life was his selling out of the army and taking to the wine trade. He had no talent for business; things went wrong with him from the first. His clerk, it was strongly suspected, cheated him’—

p a bit,’ says I. ‘What was that suspected clerk’s name?’




  ‘Davager,’ says I, making a note of it. ‘Go on, Mr Frank.’

  ‘His affairs got more and more entangled,’ says Mr Frank; ‘he was pressed for money in all directions; bankruptcy, and consequent dishonour (as he considered it), stared him in the face. His mind was so affected by his troubles that both his wife and daughter, towards the last, considered him to be hardly responsible for his own acts. In this state of desperation and misery, he’—Here Mr Frank began to hesitate.

  We have two ways in the law of drawing evidence off nice and clear from an unwilling client or witness. We give him a fright or we treat him to a joke. I treated Mr Frank to a joke.

  ‘Ah!’ says I, ‘I know what he did. He had a signature to write; and, by the most natural mistake in the world, he wrote another gentleman’s name instead of his own—eh?’

  ‘It was to a bill,’ says Mr Frank, looking very crest-fallen, instead of taking the joke.

  ‘His principal creditor wouldn’t wait till he could raise the money, or the greater part of it. But he was resolved, if he sold off everything, to get the amount and repay’—

  ‘Of course!’ says I, ‘drop that. The forgery was discovered. When?’

  ‘Before even the first attempt was made to negotiate the bill. He had done the whole thing in the most absurdly and innocently wrong way. The person whose name he had used was a stanch friend of his, and a relation of his wife’s: a good man as well as a rich one. He had influence with the chief creditor, and he used it nobly. He had a real affection for the unfortunate man’s wife, and he proved it generously.’

  ‘Come to the point,’ says I. ‘What did he do? In a business way what did he do?’

  ‘He put the false bill into the lire, drew a bill of his own to replace it, and then—only then—told my dear girl and her mother all that had happened. Can you imagine anything nobler?’ asks Mr Frank.

  ‘Speaking in my professional capacity, I can’t imagine anything greener,’ says I.

  ‘Where was the father? Off, I suppose?’

  ‘Ill in bed,’ says Mr Frank, colouring. ‘But, he mustered strength enough to write a contrite and grateful letter the same day, promising to prove himself worthy of the noble moderation and forgiveness extended to him, by selling off everything he possessed to repay his money-debt. He did sell off everything, down to some old family pictures that were heirlooms; down to the little plate he had; down to the very tables and chairs that furnished his drawing-room. Every farthing of the debt was paid; and he was left to begin the world again, with the kindest promises of help from the generous man who had

  forgiven him. It was too late. His crime of one rash moment—atoned for though it had been—preyed upon his mind. He became possessed with the idea that he had lowered himself for ever in the estimation of his wife and daughter, and’—

  ‘He died,’ I cut in. ‘Yes, yes, we know that. Let’s go back for a minute to the contrite and grateful letter that he wrote. My experience in the law, Mr Frank, has convinced me that if everybody burnt everybody else’s letters, half the Courts of Justice in this country might shut up shop. Do you happen to know whether the letter we are now speaking of contained anything like an avowal or confession of the forgery?’

  ‘Of course it did,’ says he. ‘Could the writer express his contrition properly without making some such confession?’

  ‘Quite easy, if he had been a lawyer,’ says I. ‘But never mind that; I’m going to make a guess,—a desperate guess, mind. Should I be altogether in error, if I thought that this letter had been stolen; and that the fingers of Mr Davager, of suspicious commercial celebrity, might possibly be the fingers which took it?’

  ‘That is exactly what I wanted to make you understand,’ cries Mr Frank. ‘How did he communicate the interesting fact of the theft to you?’

  ‘He has not ventured into my presence. The scoundrel actually had the audacity’—

  ‘Aha!’ says I. ‘The young lady herself! Sharp practitioner, Mr Davager.’ ‘Early this morning when she was walking alone in the shrubbery,’ Mr Frank goes on, ‘he had the assurance to approach her, and to say that he had been watching his opportunity of getting a private interview for days past. He then showed her—actually showed her—her unfortunate father’s letter; put into her hands another letter directed to me; bowed, and walked off leaving her half-dead with astonishment and terror. If I had only happened to be there at the time—!’ says Mr Frank, shaking his fist murderously in the air by way of a finish.

  ‘It’s the greatest luck in the world that you were not,’ says I. ‘Have you got that other letter?’

  He handed it to me. It was so remarkably humorous and short, that I remember every word of it at this distance of time. It began in this way:

  To Francis Gatliffe, Esq., jun.

  Sir, I have an extremely curious autograph letter to sell. The price is a Five hundred pound note. The young lady to whom you are to be married on Wednesday will inform you of the nature of the letter, and the genuineness of the autograph. If you refuse to deal, I shall send a copy to the local paper, and shall wait on your highly respected father with the original curiosity, on the afternoon of Tuesday next. Having come down here on family business, I have put up at the family hotel—being to be heard of at the Gatliffe Arms. Your very obedient servant,


  ‘A clever fellow that,’ says I, putting the letter into my private drawer. ‘Clever!’ cries Mr Frank, ‘he ought to be horsewhipped within an inch of his life. I would have done it myself; but she made me promise, before she told me a word of the matter, to come straight to you.’

  ‘That was one of the wisest promises you ever made,’ says I. ‘We can’t afford to bully this fellow, whatever else we may do with him. Do you think I am saying anything libellous against your excellent father’s character when I assert that if he saw the letter he would certainly insist on your marriage being put off, at the very least?’

  ‘Feeling as my father does about my marriage, he would insist on its being dropped altogether, if he saw this letter,’ says Mr Frank, with a groan. ‘But even that is not the worst of it. The generous, noble girl herself says, that if the letter appears in the paper, with all the unanswerable comments this scoundrel would be sure to add to it, she would rather die than hold me to my engagement—even if my father would let me keep it.’

  As he said this his eyes began to water. He was a weak young fellow, and ridiculously fond of her. I brought him back to business with another rap of the paper-knife.

  ‘Hold up, Mr Frank,’ says I. ‘I have a question or two more. Did you think of asking the young lady, whether, to the best of her knowledge, this infernal letter was the only written evidence of the forgery now in existence?’

  ‘Yes, I did think directly of asking her that,’ says he; ‘and she told me she was quite certain that there was no written evidence of the forgery except that one letter.

  ‘Will you give Mr Davager his price for it?’ says I.

  ‘Yes,’ says Mr Frank, quite peevish with me for asking him such a question. He was an easy young chap in money-matters, and talked of hundreds as most men talk of sixpences.

  ‘Mr Frank,’ says I, ‘you came here to get my help and advice in this extremely ticklish business, and you are ready, as I know without asking, to remunerate me for all and any of my services at the usual professional rate. Now, I’ve made up my mind to act boldly—

  desperately if you like—on the hit or miss—win-all-or-lose-all principle—in dealing with this matter. Here is my proposal. I’m going to try if I can’t do Mr Davager out of his letter. If I don’t succeed before to-morrow afternoon, you hand him the money, and I charge you nothing for professional services. If I do succeed, I hand you the letter instead of Mr Davager; and you give me the money instead of giving it to him. It’s a precious risk for me, but I’m rea
dy to run it. You must pay your five hundred any way. What do you say to my plan? Is it Yes, Mr Frank—or No?’

  ‘Hang your questions!’ cries Mr Frank, jumping up; ‘you know it’s Yes ten thousand times over. Only you earn the money and’—

  ‘And you will be too glad to give it to me. Very good. Now go home. Comfort the young lady—don’t let Mr Davager so much as set eyes on you—keep quiet—leave

  everything to me—and feel as certain as you please that all the letters in the world can’t stop your being married on Wednesday.’ With these words I hustled him off out of the office; for I wanted to be left alone to make my mind up about what I should do.

  The first thing, of course, was to have a look at the enemy. I wrote to Mr Davager, telling him that I was privately appointed to arrange the little business-matter between himself and ‘another party’ (no names!) on friendly terms; and begging him to call on me at his earliest convenience. At the very beginning of the case, Mr Davager bothered me.

  His answer was, that it would not be convenient to him to call till between six and seven in the evening. In this way, you see, he contrived to make me lose several precious hours, at a time when minutes almost were of importance. I had nothing for it but to be patient, and to give certain instructions, before Mr Davager came, to my boy Tom.

  There never was such a sharp boy of fourteen before, and there never will be again, as my boy Tom. A spy to look after Mr Davager was, of course, the first requisite in a case of this kind; and Tom was the smallest, quickest, quietest, sharpest, stealthiest little snake of a chap that ever dogged a gentleman’s steps and kept cleverly out of range of a gentleman’s eyes. I settled it with the boy that he was not to show at all, when Mr

  Davager came; and that he was to wait to hear me ring the bell when Mr Davager left. If I rang twice he was to show the gentleman out. If I rang once, he was to keep out of the way and follow the gentleman wherever he went till he got back to the inn. Those were the only preparations I could make to begin with; being obliged to wait, and let myself be guided by what turned up.