by Edgar Allan Poe
Adapted to chat story format by Captivated Chat
Me I think I understand.
Dupin You will now understand, then, what I meant in suggesting that, had the principle of the letter’s concealment been comprehended within the principles of the Prefect—its discovery would have been certain.
Me Yet his principles must seldom fail, or he would have been dismissed long ago!
Dupin However this functionary has been thoroughly mystified here, and the 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, the Prefect feels; and thence he has inferred that all poets are fools.
Me A logical fallacy, eh? But is this really the poet? There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. In fact, the Minister has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”
Dupin 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 Prefect.
Me You surprise me by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. Certainly the public regards the mathematical reason as the reason par excellence.
Dupin “Il y a à parièr que toute idée publique, toute convention reçue est une sottise, car elle a convenue au plus grand nombre.”
Me To quote the court wit Chamfort, eh?
A dispute with mathematicians
Dupin Yes. The mathematicians have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude.
Me You have a quarrel on hand, I see, with some of the algebraists of Paris; but proceed.
Dupin I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any special form other than the abstractly logical. In particular I dispute the reason educed by mathematical study.
Me But mathematics is a form of logic, is it not?
Dupin To the contrary, the mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. So mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. That is, what’s true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals.
Me How so?
Dupin There are numerous mathematical truths that 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.
Dupin If the Minister had been no more than a mathematician, the Prefect would have not felt it a necessity to give me this check. However I know the Minister as both mathematician and poet, and my measures were adapted to him.
Dupin I knew him as a courtier, too, and as a bold intriguant. Such a man, I considered, could not fail to be aware of the ordinary policing modes of action. Therefore 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.
Measures adapted to him
Me That’s true.
Dupin He must have foreseen 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.
Me To what purpose?
Dupin Above all to afford the police an opportunity for thorough search, and thus the sooner to impress them with the conviction that the letter was not upon the premises.
Me He wished to make them look elsewhere?
Dupin Perhaps. Also, the whole train of thought I detailed to you concerning the invariable principle of policing action in searches for concealed items would, I felt, pass through the mind of the Minister. For that reason it would make him despise all the ordinary hiding places.
Dupin 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 to the Prefect as his commonest closets. Indeed, they would have been open to the Prefect’s eyes, probes, gimlets, and microscopes. In fine, I saw that he would be driven to simplicity, if not deliberately induced to it as a matter of choice.
Solve these puzzles
Dupin Remember how desperately the Prefect laughed when I suggested last month that perhaps this mystery troubled him so much on account of its being so self-evident.
Me Yes, I remember his merriment well. I thought he would have convulsions.
Dupin There is a game of puzzles 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. 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.
Me Thus the obvious is lost to us in searching.
Dupin These words, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards on the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inapprehension. But this is a point, it appears, somewhat above or beneath the understanding of the Prefect. Above all, 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 there is more
Dupin But the more I reflected upon the daring, dashing, and discriminating ingenuity of D— and upon the fact that the document must always have been at hand if he intended to use it to good purpose, the more I felt is must be in plain sight. Not to mention the evidence obtained by the Prefect.
Me What evidence?
Dupin Simply that it was not hidden within the limits of that dignitary’s ordinary search! With all these circumstances and evidence, I became increasingly satisfied that, to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to some trickery. That is to say, he had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all.
Dupin Full of these ideas, I prepared myself with a pair of green spectacles, and called one morning, quite by accident, at the Ministerial hotel. I found D— at home, yawning, lounging, and dawdling, and pretending to be in the last extremity of ennui. But he is perhaps the most really energetic human being now alive—when nobody sees him.
Dupin 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 whole apartment, while seemingly intent only upon the conversation of my host.
Dupin 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. However, after a long and very deliberate scrutiny here, I saw nothing to excite suspicion.
Dupin At length my eyes, in surveying the room, fell upon a trumpery fillagree card-rack of pasteboard, dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece. In this rack’s three or four compartments were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter.
Dupin This letter 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. The missive 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, seemingly, contemptuously, into one of the uppermost divisions of the rack.
Me Most of us keep the odd letter, if only as a memento or evidence.
Dupin No sooner had I glanced at this particular letter, than I concluded it was the object of our search. True, it appeared radically different from the one the Prefect had described. Its seal was large and black, with the D— cipher; the Prefect’s letter was small and red, with the ducal arms of the S— family.
Me I certainly did not recognize your description of this refuse paper as matching the Prefect’s.
Dupin No. Here, the address, to the Minister, diminutive and feminine; there the superscription, to a certain royal personage, was markedly bold and decided; the size alone corresponded.
Dupin But, then, the radical differences we’re excessive; the dirt; the soiled and torn condition, so inconsistent with the methodical habits of D—, and so suggestive of a design to delude the beholder, raised suspicion.
Me Only in you, however, eh?
Dupin These things, together with the hyper-obtrusive placement of this document, full in the view of every visiter, and thus exactly in accordance with my conclusions; all were strongly corroborative of suspicion, at least in one who came with the intention to suspect.
Me Still, it’s rather remarkable. But how did you retrieve it, then? Surely the Minister would risk anything to hold on to it, including bloodshed?
Dupin I protracted my visit as long as possible, and, while I maintained a most animated discussion with the Minister upon a topic which I knew well had never failed to interest and excite him, I riveted my attention on the letter. I committed to memory its external appearance and arrangement in the rack.
Dupin I also fell, at length, upon a discovery which set at rest whatever trivial doubt I might have entertained. Certainly, 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 reverse, in the creases or edges of the first fold. This was sufficient. Clearly the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside out, re-directed, and re-sealed. I soon took my departure, leaving a gold snuff-box upon the table.
Me Making it a pretext for returning, eh?
Dupin Certainly. The next morning I called for the snuff-box, when we eagerly resumed our previous conversation. However, the loud report of a pistol was heard just beneath D—’s windows, succeeded by a series of fearful screams, and the shoutings of a terrified mob. D— rushed to a casement, threw it open, and looked out. Meanwhile, I stepped to the card-rack, pocketed the letter, and replaced it with a near facsimile I had prepared —imitating D—’s cipher, very readily, by means of a seal formed of bread.
But to what purpose?
Me Had he noted the theft he might have shoved you out the window!
Dupin Yes, but the disturbance in the street had overwhelmed him, occasioned by the frantic behavior of a man with a gun. Most notably he had fired it among a crowd of women and children. It proved, however, to have been a blank, and the fellow was suffered to go his way as a lunatic or a drunkard.
Dupin 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. What is more, the pretended lunatic was a man in my own pay.
Me But what purpose had you, in going to the window with him? Why not rush down to the street?
Dupin D— is a desperate man, and a man of nerve. His hotel, too, is not without devoted attendants. Had I made the wild attempt you suggest, I might never have left the Ministerial hotel alive.
Me I suppose you might have raised immediate suspicion, at that, just one shout and you would have been apprehended.
Dupin 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.
Dupin 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. Certainly in the present instance I have no sympathy—at least no pity—for him who descends. He is that monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius.
Me What will happen now, I wonder?
Dupin I confess 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.
Me How? Did you put anything particular in it?
Dupin Why—it did not seem altogether right to leave the interior blank—that would have been insulting. D—. At Vienna once he 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’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste. They are to be found in Crebillon’s ‘Atrée.’”