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The Devil's Spectacles

Wilkie Collins

  The Devil’s Spectacles

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by


  ‘He says, sir, he thinks he’s nigh to his latter end, and he would like, if convenient, to see you before he goes.

  ‘Do you mean before he dies?’

  ‘That’s about it, sir.’

  I was in no humor (for reasons to be hereafter mentioned) for seeing anybody, under disastrous circumstances of any sort; but the person who had sent me word that he was ‘nigh to his latter end’ had special claims on my consideration.

  He was an old sailor, who had first seen blue water under the protection of my father, then a post-captain in the navy. Born on our estate, and the only male survivor of our head gamekeeper’s family of seven children, he had received a good education through my father’s kindness, and he ought to have got on well in the world; but he was one of those born vagabonds who set education at defiance. His term of service having expired, he disappeared for many years. During part of the time he was supposed to have been employed in the merchant navy. At the end of that long interval he turned up one day at our country house, an invalided man, without a penny in his pocket. My good father, then nearing the end of his life, was invalided too. Whether he had a fellow-feeling for the helpless creature whom he had once befriended. or whether he only took counsel of his own generous nature, it is now needless to inquire. He appointed Septimus Notman to be lodge-keeper at the second of our two park gates, and he recommended Septimus to my personal care on his deathbed. ‘I’m afraid he’s an old scoundrel,’

  my father confessed; ‘but somebody must look after him as long as he lasts, and if you don’t take his part, Alfred, nobody else will.’ After this Septimus kept his place at the gate while we were in the country. When we returned to our London house the second gate was closed. The old sailor was lodged (by a strong exertion of my influence) in a room over a disused stable, which our coachman had proposed to turn into a hayloft. Everybody disliked Septimus Notman. He was said to be mad; to be a liar, a hypocrite, a vicious wretch, and a disagreeable brute. There were people who even reported that he had been a pirate during the time when we lost sight of him and who declared, when they were asked for their proof, that his crimes were written in his face.

  He was not in the least affected by the opinions of his neighbors; he chewed his tobacco and drank his grog, and, in the words of the old song, ‘He cared for nobody, no, not he!~ Well had my poor father said, that if I didn’t take his part nobody else would. And shall I tell you a secret?

  Though I strictly carried out my father’s wishes, and though Septimus was disposed in his own rough way to be grateful to me. I didn’t like him either.

  So I went to the room over the stables (we were in London at the time) with dry eyes and I sat down by his bed and cut up a cake of tobacco for him, and said, ‘Well, what’s the matter?’ as coolly as if he had sent me word that he thought he had caught a cold in the head.

  ‘I’m called away.’ Septimus answered, ‘and before I go I’ve got a confession to make, and something useful to offer you. It’s reported among the servants. Mr Alfred, that you’re in trouble

  just now between two ladies. You may see your way clear in that matter, sir, if death spares me long enough to say a few last words.’

  ‘Never mind me, Septimus. Has a doctor seen you?’

  ‘The doctor knows no more about me than I know myself. The doctor be—!’

  ‘Have you any last wishes that I can attend to?’



  ‘Shall I send for a clergyman?’

  Septimus Notman looked at me as directly as he could—he was afflicted with a terrible squint.

  Otherwise he was a fine, stoutly-built man, with a ruddy face profusely encircled by white hair and whiskers, a hoarse, heavy voice, and the biggest hands I ever saw. He put one of these enormous hands under his pillow before he answered me.

  ‘If you think,’ he said, ‘that a clergyman will come to a man who has got the Devil s Spectacles here, under his pillow, and who has only to put those Spectacles on to see through that clergyman’s clothes, flesh, and what not, and read everything that’s written in his secret mind as plain as print, fetch him, Master Alfred—fetch him!’

  I thought the clergyman might not like this, and withdrew my suggestion accordingly. The least I could do, as a matter of common politeness, after giving up the clergyman, was to ask if I might look at the Devil’s Spectacles.

  Hear how I came by them first!’ said Septimus.

  ‘Will it take long?’ I inquired.

  ‘It will take long, and it will make your flesh creep.’

  I remembered my promise to my father, and placed myself and my flesh at the mercy of Septimus Notman. But he was not ready to begin yet.

  ‘Do you see that white jug?’ he said, pointing to the wash-hand stand.

  ‘Yes. Do you want water?’

  ‘I want grog. There’s grog in the whitejug. And there’s a pewter mug on the chimney-piece. I must be strung up, Master Alfred—I must be strung up.’

  The white jug contained at least half a gallon of rum and water, roughly calculated. I strung him up. In the case of any other dying person I might have hesitated. But a man who possessed the Devil’s Spectacles was surely an exception to ordinary rules, and might finish his career and finish his grog at One and the same time.

  ‘Now, I’m ready,’ he said, ‘What do you think I was up to in the time when you all lost sight of me? The latter part of that time, I mean?’

  ‘They say you were a pirate,’ I replied.

  ‘Worse than that. Guess again.’

  I tried to persuade myself that there might be such a human anomaly as a merciful pirate, and guessed once more.

  ‘A murderer,’ I suggested.

  ‘Worse than that. Guess again.’

  I declined to guess again. ‘Tell me yourself what you have been,’ I said.

  He answered without the least appearance of discomposure, ‘I’ve been a Cannibal.’

  Perhaps it was weak of me—but I did certainly start to my feet and make for the door.

  ‘Hear the circumstances,’ said Septimus. ‘You know the proverb, sir? Circumstances alter cases.’

  There was no disputing the proverb. I sat down again. I was a young and tender man, which, in my present position, was certainly against me. But I had very little flesh on my bones and that was in my favor.

  ‘It happened when I went out with the Arctic expedition,’ Septimus proceeded. ‘I’ve forgotten all my learning, and lost my memory for dates. The year escapes me, and the latitude and longitude escape me. But I can tell you the rest of it. We were an exploring party, you must know, with sledges. It was getting close to the end of the summer months in those parts, and we were higher than any of them have ever got since to the North Pole. We should have found our way there—don’t you doubt it—but for three of our best men who fell sick of the scurvy. The second lieutenant, who was in command, called a halt, as the soldiers say. “With this loss of strength,” says he, “it’s my duty to take you back to the ships. We must let the North Pole be, and pray God that we may have no more invalided men to carry. I give you half an hour’s rest before we turn back.” The carpenter was one of our sound men. He spoke next. He reported one of the two sledges not fit for service. “How long will you be making it fit?” says the lieutenant.

  “In a decent climate,” says the carpenter, “I should say two or three hours, sir. Here, double that time, at least.” You may say why not do without the sledge? I’ll tell you why. On account of the sick men to be carried. “Be as quick about it as you can,” says the
lieutenant: “time means life in our predicament.” Most of the men were glad enough to rest. Only two of us murmured at not going on. One was a boatswain’s mate; t’other was me. “Do you think the North Pole’s the other side of that rising ground there?” says the lieutenant. The boatswain’s mate was young and self-conceited. “I should like to try, sir,” he says, “if any other man has pluck enough to go along with me.” He looked at me when he said that. I wasn’t going to have my courage called in question publicly by a slip of a lad; and, moreover, I had a fancy to try for the North Pole, too. I volunteered to go along with him. Our notion, you will understand, was to take a compass and some grub with us; to try what we could find in a couple of hours’ march forward; and to get back in good time for our duty on the return journey. The lieutenant wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m responsible for every man in my charge,” says he. “You’re a couple of fools. Stay where you are.” We were a couple of fools. We watched our opportunity, while they were all unloading the broken-down sledge; and slipped off to try our luck, and get the reward for discovering the North Pole.’

  There he stopped, and pointed to the grog. ‘Dry-work, talking,’ he said. ‘Give us a drop more.’

  I filled the pewter mug again. And again Septimus Notman emptied it.

  ‘We set our course northwest by north,’ he went on; ‘and after a while (seeing the ground favored us) we altered it again to due north. I can’t tell you how long we walked (we neither of us had watches)—but this I’ll swear to. Just as the last of the daylight was dying out, we got to the top of a hillock; and there we saw the glimmer of the open Polar Sea! No! not the Sound that enters Kennedy’s Channel, which has been mistaken for jt, I know—but the real thing, the still and lonesome Polar Sea! What would you have done in our place? I’ll tell you what we did. We sat down on some nice dry snow, and took out our biscuits and grog. Freezing work, do you say?

  You’ll find it in the books, if you don’t believe me—the further north you get in those parts, the less cold there is, and the more open water you find. Ask Captain M’Clure what sort of a bed he slept upon, on the night of October thirtieth, ’fifty-one. Well, and what do you think we did when we had eaten and drunk? Lit our pipes. And what next? Fell fast asleep, after our long walk, on our nice dry snow. And what sort of prospect met us when we woke? Darkness and drizzle and mist. I had the compass, and I tried to set our course on the way back. I could no more see the compass than if I had been blind. We had no means of striking a light, except my match-box. I

  had left it on the snow by my side when I fell asleep. Not a match would light. As for help of any sort, it was not to be thought of. We couldn’t have been less than five miles distant from the place where we had left our messmates. So there we were, the boatswain’s mate and me, alone in the desert, lost at the North Pole.’

  I began to feel interested. ‘You tried to get back, I suppose, dark as it was?’ I said.

  ‘We walked till we dropped,’ Septimus answered; ‘and then we yelled and shouted till we had no voices left; and then we hollowed out a hole in the snow, and waited for daylight.’

  ‘What did you expect when daylight came?’

  ‘I expected nothing, Master Alfred. The boatswain’s mate (beginning to get a little light-headed, you know) expected the lieutenant to send in search of us, or to wait till we returned. A likely thing for an officer in charge to do, with the lives of the sledging party depending on his getting them back to the ships, and only two men missing, who had broken orders and deserted their duty. A good riddance of bad rubbish—that’s what he said of us when we were reported missing, I’ll be bound. When the light came we tried to get back; and we did set our course cleverly enough. But, bless you, we had nothing left to eat or drink! When the light failed us again we were done up. We dropped on the snow, under the lee of a rock, and gave out. The boatswain’s mate said his prayers, and I said Amen. Not the least use! On the contrary, as the night advanced it got colder and colder. We were both close together, to keep each other warm. I don’t know how long it was, I only know it was still pitch dark, when I heard the boatswain’s mate give a little flutter of a sigh, and no more. I opened his clothes, and put my hand on his heart. Dead, of cold and exhaustion and no mistake. I shouldn’t have been long after him but for my own presence of mind.’

  ‘Your presence of mind? What did you do?’

  ‘Stripped every rag of clothes off him, and put them all on myself. What are you shivering about? He couldn’t feel it, could he? I tell you, he’d have been frozen stiff before the next day’s light came—but for my presence of mind again. As well as my failing strength would let me, I buried him under the snow. Virtue, they say, Master Alfred, is its own reward. That good action proved to be the saving of my life.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Didn’t I tell you I buried him?’


  ‘Well, in that freezing air, the burying of him kept him eatable. Don’t you see?’



  ‘Put yourself in my place, and don’t call names. I held out till I was mad with hunger. And then I did open my knife with my teeth. And I did burrow down in the snow till I felt him—.’

  I could hear no more of it. ‘Get on to the end!’ I said. ‘Why didn’t you die at the North Pole?’

  ‘Because somebody helped me to get away.’

  ‘Who helped you?’



  He showed his yellow old teeth in a horrible grin. I could draw but one conclusion—his mind was failing him before death. Anything that spared me his hideous confession of cannibalism was welcome. I asked how the supernatural rescue happened.

  ‘More grog first,’ he said. ‘The horrors come on me when I think of it.’ He was evidently sinking. Without the grog I doubt if he could have said much more.

  ‘I can’t tell you how many days passed,’ he went on; ‘I only know that the time was nigh when it was all dark and no light. The darker it got, the deeper I scooped the sort of cavern I’d made

  for myself under the snow. Whether it was night, or whether it was day I know no more than you do. On a sudden, in the awful silence and solitude, I heard a voice, high up, as it were, on the rock behind me. It was a cheering and a pleasant voice, and it said, “Well, Septimus Notman, is there much left of the boatswain’s mate by this time? Did he eat short while he lasted?” I cried out in a fright, “Who the devil—?” The voice stopped me before I could say the rest. “You’ve hit it,” says the voice, “I am that person; and it’s about time the Devil helped you out of this.” “No,”

  says I, “I’d rather perish by cold than fire any day.” “Make your mind easy,” says he, taking the point, “I don’t want you at my place yet. I expect you to do a deal more in the way of degrading your humanity before you come to me, and I offer you a safe passage back to the nearest settlement. Friend Septimus, you’re a man after my own heart.” “As how, sir?” says I. “Because you’re such a complete beast,” says he. “A human being who elevates himself, and rises higher and higher to his immortal destiny, is a creature I hate. He gets above me, even in his earthly lifetime. But you have dropped—you dear good fellow—to the level of a famished wolf. You have gobbled up your dead companion; and if you ever had such a thing as a soul—ha, Septimus!—it parted company with you at the first morsel you tasted of the Boatswain’s mate.

  Do you think I’ll leave such a prime specimen of the Animal Man as you are, deserted at the North Pole? No, no; I grant you a free pass by my railway; darkness and distance are no obstacles to Me. Are you ready?” You may not believe me; but I felt myself being lifted up, as it were, against my own will. “Give us a light,” I says, “I can’t travel in the dark.” “Take my spectacles,” says he, “they’ll help you to see more than you bargain for. Look through them at your fellow mortals, and you’ll see the inmost thoughts of their hearts as plain as I do, and, considering your nature, Septimus, that
will drop you even below the level of a wolf.” “Suppose I don’t want to look,” says I, “may I throw the spectacles away?” “They’ll come back to you,”

  says he. “May I smash them up?” “They’ll put themselves together again.” “What am I to do with them?” “Give them to another man. Now, then! One, two, three—and away!” You may not believe me again; I lost my senses, Master Alfred. Hold me up; I’m losing them now. More grog—that’s right—more grog. I came to myself at Upernavik, with the Devil’s Spectacles in my pocket. Take them, sir. And read those two ladies’ hearts. And act accordingly. Hush! I hear him speaking to me again. Behind my pillow. Just as he spoke on the rock. Most polite and cheering.

  Calling to me, as it were, “Come, Cannibal—come!” Like a song, isn’t it? “Come, Cannibal—


  He sang the last words faintly, and died with a smile on his face. Delirium or lies? With the Spectacles actually in my hands, I was inclined to think lies. They were of the old-fashioned sort, with big, circular glasses, and stout tortoise-shell frames; they smelt musty, but not sulphurous. I possess a sense of humour, I am happy to say. When they were thoroughly cleaned, I determined to try the Devil’s Spectacles on the two ladies, and submit to the consequences, whatever they might be.


  Who were the two ladies?

  They were both young and unmarried. As a matter of delicacy, I ask permission to mention them by their Christian names only. Zilla, aged seventeen. Cecilia, aged two and twenty.

  And what was my position between them?

  I was of the same age as Cecilia. She was my mother’s companion and reader; handsome, well-born and poor. I had made her a proposal, and had been accepted. There were no money

  difficulties in the way of our marriage, in spite of my sweetheart’s empty purse. I was an only child, and I had inherited, excepting my mother’s jointure, the whole of the large property that my father left at his death. In social rank Cecilia was more than my equal; we were therefore not ill-matched from the worldly point of view. Nevertheless, there was an obstacle to our Union, and a person interested in making the most of it. The obstacle was Zilla. The person interested was my mother. Zilla was her niece—her elder brother’s daughter. The girl’s parents had died in India, and she had been sent to school in England, under the care of her uncle and guardian. I had never seen her, and had hardly even heard of her, until there was a question of her spending the Christmas holidays (in the year when Septimus Notman died) at our house.