My Miscellanies, Vol. 2 (of 2)

My Miscellanies, Vol. 2 (of 2)

Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins

Author: Collins, Wilkie, 1824-1889
English literature — 19th century
My Miscellanies, Vol. 2 (of 2)
Transcriber’s Note:
Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. Inconsistent spelling and hyphenation in the original document have been preserved.


The Author reserves the right of Translation.



Cases Worth Looking At: I.
  Memoirs of an Adopted Son 1
Sketches of Character: IV.
  The Bachelor Bedroom 30
Nooks and Corners of History: III.
  A remarkable Revolution 55
Douglas Jerrold 75
Sketches of Character: V.
  Pray employ Major Namby! 95
Cases Worth Looking At: II.
  The Poisoned Meal 114
Sketches of Character: VI.
  My Spinsters 173
Dramatic Grub Street. (Explored in Two Letters) 193
To Think, or Be Thought For? 211
Social Grievances: IV.
  Save Me from my Friends 230
Cases Worth Looking At: III.
  The Cauldron of Oil 250
Bold Words by a Bachelor 281
Social Grievances: V.
  Mrs. Bullwinkle 292



I.—Circumstances which preceded his Birth.

Towards the beginning of the eighteenth century there stood on a rock in the sea, near a fishing village on the coast of Brittany, a ruined Tower with a very bad reputation. No mortal was known to have inhabited it within the memory of living man. The one tenant whom Tradition associated with the occupation of the place, at a remote period, had moved into it from the infernal regions, nobody knew why—had lived in it, nobody knew how long—and had quitted possession, nobody knew when. Under such circumstances, nothing was more natural than that this unearthly Individual should give a name to his residence; for which reason, the building was thereafter known to all the neighbourhood round as Satanstower.
Early in the year seventeen hundred, the inhabitants of the village were startled, one night, by seeing the red gleam of a fire in the Tower, and by smelling, in the same direction, a preternaturally strong odour of fried fish. The next morning, the fishermen who passed by the building in their boats were amazed to find that a stranger had taken up his abode in it. Judging of him at a distance, he seemed to be a fine tall stout fellow: he was dressed in fisherman’s costume, and he had a new boat of his own, moored comfortably in a cleft of the rock. If he had inhabited a place of decent reputation, his neighbours would have immediately made his acquaintance; but, as things were, all they could venture to do was to watch him in silence.
The first day passed, and, though it was fine weather, he made no use of his boat. The second day followed, with a continuance of the fine weather, and still he was as idle as before. On the third day, when a violent storm kept all the boats of the village on the beach—on the third day, in the midst of the tempest, away went the man of the Tower to make his first fishing experiment in strange waters! He and his boat came back safe and sound, in a lull of the storm; and the villagers watching on the cliff above saw him carrying the fish up, by great basketsful, to his Tower. No such haul had ever fallen to the lot of any one of them—and the stranger had taken it in a whole gale of wind!
Upon this, the inhabitants of the village called a council. The lead in the debate was assumed by a smart young fellow, a fisherman named Poulailler, who stoutly declared that the stranger at the Tower was of infernal origin. “The rest of you may call him what you like,” said Poulailler; “I call him The Fiend-Fisherman!”
The opinion thus expressed proved to be the opinion of the entire audience—with the one exception of the village priest. The priest said, “Gently, my sons. Don’t make sure about the man of the Tower, before Sunday. Wait and see if he comes to church.”
“And if he doesn’t come to church?” asked all the fishermen, in a breath.
“In that case,” replied the priest, “I will excommunicate him—and then, my children, you may call him what you like.”
Sunday came; and no sign of the stranger darkened the church-doors. He was excommunicated, accordingly. The whole village forthwith adopted Poulailler’s idea; and called the man of the Tower by the name which Poulailler had given him—”The Fiend-Fisherman.”
These strong proceedings produced not the slightest apparent effect on the diabolical personage who had occasioned them. He persisted in remaining idle when the weather was fine; in going out to fish when no other boat in the place dare put to sea; and in coming back again to his solitary dwelling-place, with his nets full, his boat uninjured, and himself alive and hearty. He made no attempts to buy and sell with anybody; he kept steadily away from the village; he lived on fish of his own preternaturally strong frying; and he never spoke to a living soul—with the solitary exception of Poulailler himself. One fine evening, when the young man was rowing home past the Tower, the Fiend-Fisherman darted out on to the rock—said, “Thank you, Poulailler, for giving me a name”—bowed politely—and darted in again. The young fisherman felt the words run cold down the marrow of his back; and whenever he was at sea again, he gave the Tower a wide berth from that day forth.
Time went on—and an important event occurred in Poulailler’s life. He was engaged to be married. On the day when his betrothal was publicly made known, his friends clustered noisily about him on the fishing-jetty of the village to offer their congratulations. While they were all in full cry, a strange voice suddenly made itself heard through the confusion, which silenced everybody in an instant. The crowd fell back, and disclosed the Fiend-Fisherman sauntering up the jetty. It was the first time he had ever set foot—cloven foot—within the precincts of the village.
“Gentlemen,” said the Fiend-Fisherman, “where is my friend, Poulailler?” He put the question with perfect politeness; he looked remarkably well in his fisherman’s costume; he exhaled a relishing odour of fried fish; he had a cordial nod for the men, and a sweet smile for the women—but, with all these personal advantages, everybody fell back from him, and nobody answered his question. The coldness of the popular reception, however, did not in any way abash him. He looked about for Poulailler with searching eyes, discovered the place in which he was standing, and addressed him in the friendliest manner.
“So you are going to be married?” remarked the Fiend-Fisherman.
“What’s that to you?” said Poulailler. He was inwardly terrified, but outwardly gruff—not an uncommon combination of circumstances with men of his class, in his mental situation.
“My friend,” pursued the Fiend-Fisherman, “I have not forgotten your polite attention in giving me a name; and I come here to requite it. You will have a family, Poulailler; and your first child will be a boy. I propose to make that boy my Adopted Son.”
The marrow of Poulailler’s back became awfully cold—but he grew gruffer than ever, in spite of his back.
“You won’t do anything of the sort,” he replied. “If I have the largest family in France, no child of mine shall ever go near you.”
“I shall adopt your first-born for all that,” persisted the Fiend-Fisherman. “Poulailler! I wish you good morning. Ladies and gentlemen! the same to all of you.”
With those words, he withdrew from the jetty; and the marrow of Poulailler’s back recovered its temperature.
The next morning was stormy; and all the village expected to see the boat from the Tower put out, as usual, to sea. Not a sign of it appeared. Later in the day, the rock on which the building stood was examined from a distance. Neither boat nor nets were in their customary places. At night, the red gleam of the fire was missed for the first time. The Fiend-Fisherman had gone! He had announced his intentions on the jetty, and had disappeared. What did this mean? Nobody knew.
On Poulailler’s wedding-day, a portentous circumstance recalled the memory of the diabolical stranger, and, as a matter of course, seriously discomposed the bridegroom’s back. At the moment when the marriage ceremony was complete, a relishing odour of fried fish stole into the nostrils of the company, and a voice from invisible lips said: “Keep up your spirits, Poulailler; I have not forgotten my promise!”
A year later, Madame Poulailler was in the hands of the midwife of the district, and a repetition of the portentous circumstance took place. Poulailler was waiting in the kitchen to hear how matters ended up-stairs. The nurse came in with a baby. “Which is it?” asked the happy father; “girl or boy?” Before the nurse could answer, an odour of supernaturally fried fish filled the kitchen; and a voice from invisible lips replied: “A boy, Poulailler—and I’ve got him!
Such were the circumstances under which the subject of this Memoir was introduced to the joys and sorrows of mortal existence.

II.—His Boyhood and Early Life.

When a boy is born under auspices which lead his parents to suppose that, while the bodily part of him is safe at home, the spiritual part is subjected to a course of infernal tuition elsewhere—what are his father and mother to do with him? They must do the best they can—which was exactly what Poulailler and his wife did with the hero of these pages.
In the first place, they had him christened instantly. It was observed with horror that his infant face was distorted with grimaces, and that his infant voice roared with a preternatural lustiness of tone the moment the priest touched him. The first thing he asked for, when he learnt to speak, was “fried fish;” and the first place he wanted to go to, when he learnt to walk, was the diabolical Tower on the rock. “He won’t learn anything,” said the master, when he was old enough to go to school. “Thrash him,” said Poulailler—and the master thrashed him. “He won’t come to his first communion,” said the priest. “Thrash him,” said Poulailler—and the priest thrashed him. The farmers’ orchards were robbed; the neighbouring rabbit-warrens were depopulated; linen was stolen from the gardens, and nets were torn on the beach. “The deuce take Poulailler’s boy,” was the general cry. “The deuce has got him,” was Poulailler’s answer. “And yet he is a nice-looking boy,” said Madame Poulailler. And he was—as tall, as strong, as handsome a young fellow, as could be seen in all France. “Let us pray for him,” said Madame Poulailler. “Let us thrash him,” said her husband. “Our son has been thrashed till all the sticks in the neighbourhood are broken,” pleaded his mother. “We will try him with the rope’s-end next,” retorted his father; “he shall go to sea and live in an atmosphere of thrashing. Our son shall be a cabin-boy.” It was all one to Poulailler Junior—he knew who had adopted him, as well as his father—he had been instinctively conscious from infancy of the Fiend-Fisherman’s interest in his welfare—he cared for no earthly discipline—and a cabin-boy he became at ten years old.
After two years of the rope’s-end (applied quite ineffectually), the subject of this Memoir robbed his captain, and ran away in an English port. London became the next scene of his adventures. At twelve years old, he persuaded society in the Metropolis that he was the forsaken natural son of a French duke. British benevolence, after blindly providing for him for four years, opened its eyes and found him out at the age of sixteen; upon which he returned to France, and entered the army in the capacity of drummer. At eighteen, he deserted, and had a turn with the gipsies. He told fortunes, he conjured, he danced on the tight-rope, he acted, he sold quack medicines, he altered his mind again, and returned to the army. Here he fell in love with the vivandière of his new regiment. The sergeant-major of the company, touched by the same amiable weakness, naturally resented his attentions to the lady. Poulailler (perhaps unjustifiably) asserted himself by boxing his officer’s ears. Out flashed the swords on both sides, and in went Poulailler’s blade through and through the tender heart of the sergeant-major. The frontier was close at hand. Poulailler wiped his sword, and crossed it.
Sentence of death was recorded against him in his absence. When society has condemned us to die, if we are men of any spirit how are we to return the compliment? By condemning society to keep us alive—or, in other words, by robbing right and left for a living. Poulailler’s destiny was now accomplished. He was picked out to be the Greatest Thief of his age; and when Fate summoned him to his place in the world, he stepped forward and took it. His life hitherto had been merely the life of a young scamp—he was now to do justice to the diabolical father who had adopted him, and to expand to the proportions of a full-grown Robber.
His first exploits were performed in Germany. They showed such novelty of combination, such daring, such dexterity, and, even in his most homicidal moments, such irresistible gaiety and good humour, that a band of congenial spirits gathered about him in no time. As commander-in-chief of the Thieves’ army, his popularity never wavered. His weaknesses—and what illustrious man is without them?—were three in number. First weakness—he was extravagantly susceptible to the charms of the fair sex. Second weakness—he was perilously fond of practical jokes. Third weakness (inherited from his adopted parent)—his appetite was insatiable in the matter of fried fish. As for the merits to set against these defects, some have been noticed already, and others will appear immediately. Let it merely be premised, in this place, that he was one of the handsomest men of his time, that he dressed superbly, and that he was capable of the most exalted acts of generosity wherever a handsome woman was concerned—let this be understood, to begin with; and let us now enter on the narrative of his last exploit in Germany before he returned to France. This adventure is something more than a mere specimen of his method of workmanship—it proved, in the future, to be the fatal event of his life.
On a Monday in the week, he had stopped on the highway, and robbed of all his valuables and all his papers, an Italian nobleman—the Marquis Petrucci of Sienna. On Tuesday, he was ready for another stroke of business. Posted on the top of a steep hill, he watched the road which wound up to the summit on one side, while his followers were ensconced on the road which led down from it on the other. The prize expected, in this case, was the travelling carriage (with a large sum of money inside) of the Baron de Kirbergen.
Before long, Poulailler discerned the carriage afar off, at the bottom of the hill, and in advance of it, ascending the eminence, two ladies on foot. They were the Baron’s daughters—Wilhelmina, a fair beauty; Frederica, a brunette—both lovely, both accomplished, both susceptible, both young. Poulailler sauntered down the hill to meet the fascinating travellers. He looked—bowed—introduced himself—and fell in love with Wilhelmina on the spot. Both the charming girls acknowledged in the most artless manner that confinement to the carriage had given them the fidgets, and that they were walking up the hill to try the remedy of gentle exercise. Poulailler’s heart was touched, and Poulailler’s generosity to the sex was roused in the nick of time. With a polite apology to the young ladies, he ran back, by a short cut, to the ambush on the other side of the hill in which his men were posted.
“Gentlemen!” cried the generous Thief, “in the charming name of Wilhelmina de Kirbergen, I charge you all, let the Baron’s carriage pass free.” The band was not susceptible—the band demurred. Poulailler knew them. He had appealed to their hearts in vain—he now appealed to their pockets. “Gentlemen!” he resumed, “excuse my momentary misconception of your sentiments. Here is my one half share of the Marquis Petrucci’s property. If I divide it among you, will you let the carriage pass free?” The band knew the value of money—and accepted the terms. Poulailler rushed back up the hill, and arrived at the top just in time to hand the young ladies into the carriage. “Charming man!” said the white Wilhelmina to the brown Frederica, as they drove off. Innocent soul! what would she have said if she had known that her personal attractions had saved her father’s property? Was she ever to see the charming man again? Yes: she was to see him the next day—and, more than that, Fate was hereafter to link her fast to the robber’s life and the robbers doom.
Confiding the direction of the band to his first lieutenant, Poulailler followed the carriage on horseback, and ascertained the place of the Baron’s residence that night.
The next morning a superbly-dressed stranger knocked at the door. “What name, sir?” said the servant. “The Marquis Petrucci of Sienna,” replied Poulailler. “How are the young ladies after their journey?” The Marquis was shown in, and introduced to the Baron. The Baron was naturally delighted to receive a brother nobleman—Miss Wilhelmina was modestly happy to see the charming man again—Miss Frederica was affectionately pleased on her sister’s account. Not being of a disposition to lose time where his affections were concerned, Poulailler expressed his sentiments to the beloved object that evening. The next morning he had an interview with the Baron, at which he produced the papers which proved him to be the Marquis. Nothing could be more satisfactory to the mind of the most anxious parent—the two noblemen embraced. They were still in each other’s arms, when a second stranger knocked at the door. “What name, sir?” said the servant. “The Marquis Petrucci of Sienna,” replied the stranger. “Impossible!” said the servant; “his lordship is now in the house.” “Show me in, scoundrel,” cried the visitor. The servant submitted, and the two Marquises stood face to face. Poulailler’s composure was not shaken in the least; he had come first to the house, and he had got the papers. “You are the villain who robbed me!” cried the true Petrucci. “You are drunk, mad, or an impostor,” retorted the false Petrucci. “Send to Florence, where I am known,” exclaimed one of the Marquises, apostrophising the Baron. “Send to Florence by all mea

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