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I had been reading, as is my wont from time to time, one of the many volumes of "The New Pitaval," that singular record of human crime and human cunning, and also of the inevitable fatality which, in every case, leaves a gate open for detection. Were it not for the latter fact, indeed, one would turn with loathing from such endless chronicles of wickedness. Yet these may be safely contemplated, when one has discovered the incredible fatuity of crime, the certain weak mesh in a network of devilish texture; or is it rather the agency of a power outside of man, a subtile protecting principle, which allows the operation of the evil element only that the latter may finally betray itself? Whatever explanation we may choose, the fact is there, like a tonic medicine distilled from poisonous plants, to brace our faith in the ascendancy of Good in the government of the world.
Laying aside the book, I fell into a speculation concerning the mixture of the two elements in man's nature. The life of an individual is usually, it seemed to me, a series of RESULTS, the processes leading to which are not often visible, or observed when they are so. Each act is the precipitation of a number of mixed influences, more or less unconsciously felt; the qualities of good and evil are so blended therein that they defy the keenest moral analysis; and how shall we, then, pretend to judge of any one? Perhaps the surest indication of evil (I further reflected) is that it always tries to conceal itself, and the strongest incitement to good is that evil cannot be concealed. The crime, or the vice, or even the self-acknowledged weakness, becomes a part of the individual consciousness; it cannot be forgotten or outgrown. It follows a life through all experiences and to the uttermost ends of the earth, pressing towards the light with a terrible, demoniac power. There are noteless lives, of course-- lives that accept obscurity, mechanically run their narrow round of circumstance, and are lost; but when a life endeavors to lose itself,--to hide some conscious guilt or failure,--can it succeed? Is it not thereby lifted above the level of common experience, compelling attention to itself by the very endeavor to escape it?
I turned these questions over in my mind, without approaching, or indeed expecting, any solution,--since I knew, from habit, the labyrinths into which they would certainly lead me,--when a visitor was announced. It was one of the directors of our county almshouse, who came on an errand to which he attached no great importance. I owed the visit, apparently, to the circumstance that my home lay in his way, and he could at once relieve his conscience of a very trifling pressure and his pocket of a small package, by calling upon me. His story was told in a few words; the package was placed upon my table, and I was again left to my meditations.
Two or three days before, a man who had the appearance of a "tramp" had been observed by the people of a small village in the neighborhood. He stopped and looked at the houses in a vacant way, walked back and forth once or twice as if uncertain which of the cross-roads to take, and presently went on without begging or even speaking to any one. Towards sunset a farmer, on his way to the village store, found him sitting at the roadside, his head resting against a fence-post. The man's face was so worn and exhausted that the farmer kindly stopped and addressed him; but he gave no other reply than a shake of the head.
The farmer thereupon lifted him into his light country-wagon, the man offering no resistance, and drove to the tavern, where, his exhaustion being so evident, a glass of whiskey was administered to him. He afterwards spoke a few words in German, which no one understood. At the almshouse, to which he was transported the same evening, he refused to answer the customary questions, although he appeared to understand them. The physician was obliged to use a slight degree of force in administering nourishment and medicine, but neither was of any avail. The man died within twenty-four hours after being received. His pockets were empty, but two small leathern wallets were found under his pillow; and these formed the package which the director left in my charge. They were full of papers in a foreign language, he said, and he supposed I might be able to ascertain the stranger's name and home from them.
I took up the wallets, which were worn and greasy from long service, opened them, and saw that they were filled with scraps, fragments, and folded pieces of paper, nearly every one of which had been carried for a long time loose in the pocket. Some were written in pen and ink, and some in pencil, but all were equally brown, worn, and unsavory in appearance. In turning them over, however, my eye was caught by some slips in the Russian character, and three or four notes in French; the rest were German. I laid aside "Pitaval" at once, emptied all the leathern pockets carefully, and set about examining the pile of material.
I first ran rapidly through the papers to ascertain the dead man's name, but it was nowhere to be found. There were half a dozen letters, written on sheets folded and addressed in the fashion which prevailed before envelopes were invented; but the name was cut out of the address in every case. There was an official permit to embark on board a Bremen steamer, mutilated in the same way; there was a card photograph, from which the face had been scratched by a penknife. There were Latin sentences; accounts of expenses; a list of New York addresses, covering eight pages; and a number of notes, written either in Warsaw or Breslau. A more incongruous collection I never saw, and I am sure that had it not been for the train of thought I was pursuing when the director called upon me, I should have returned the papers to him without troubling my head with any attempt to unravel the man's story.
The evidence, however, that he had endeavored to hide his life, had been revealed by my first superficial examination; and here, I reflected, was a singular opportunity to test both his degree of success and my own power of constructing a coherent history out of the detached fragments. Unpromising as is the matter, said I, let me see whether he can conceal his secret from even such unpractised eyes as mine.
I went through the papers again, read each one rapidly, and arranged them in separate files, according to the character of their contents. Then I rearranged these latter in the order of time, so far as it was indicated; and afterwards commenced the work of picking out and threading together whatever facts might be noted. The first thing I ascertained, or rather conjectured, was that the man's life might be divided into three very distinct phases, the first ending in Breslau, the second in Poland, and the third and final one in America. Thereupon I once again rearranged the material, and attacked that which related to the first phase.
It consisted of the following papers: Three letters, in a female hand, commencing "My dear brother," and terminating with "Thy loving sister, Elise;" part of a diploma from a gymnasium, or high school, certifying that [here the name was cut out] had successfully passed his examination, and was competent to teach,--and here again, whether by accident or design, the paper was torn off; a note, apparently to a jeweller, ordering a certain gold ring to be delivered to "Otto," and signed " B. V. H.;" a receipt from the package-post for a box forwarded to Warsaw, to the address of Count Ladislas Kasincsky; and finally a washing-list, at the bottom of which was written, in pencil, in a trembling hand: "May God protect thee! But do not stay away so very long."
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Beauty and the Beast, and Tales From Home -by- Bayard Taylor