Love's Random Shot


Wilkie Collins

This story first appeared in a French translation in the 1883 Christmas edition of Le Figaro Illustré and in the Christmas edition of The Pictorial World in London. It was reprinted in the Seaside Library in new York and later appeared in Love’s Random Shot and Other Stories by Wilkie Collins (New York: George Munro’s Sons, 1894).

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Love’s Random Shot

1

The scene is a famous city in Scotland.

The chief personage is the best police-officer we had in the time when I served the office of Sheriff.

He was an old man, about to retire on a well-earned pension at the period of his life to which my narrative refers. A theft of a priceless picture, which had escaped discovery by the other members of our police force, roused old Benjamin Parley to exert himself for the last time. The money motive was not the motive that mainly influenced him, although the large reward originally offered for the recovery of the picture had been doubled. ‘If the rest of you can’t find the thief,’ he said, ‘I must take the case in hand, for the honour of Scotland.’

Having arrived at this decision, Parley presented himself at my house. I gave him a letter of introduction to the proprietor of the picture — then on the point of applying for help to London.

You have heard of Lord Dalton’s famous gallery. A Madonna, by Raphael, was the gem of the collection. Early one morning the servants discovered the empty frame, without finding a trace of the means by which the audacious robbery had been committed. Having allowed our veteran officer to make his own preliminary investigations, my lord (a man of rare ability and of marked originality of character) was at once impressed by the startling novelty of the conclusion at which Parley arrived, and by the daring nature of the plan that he devised for solving the mystery of the theft.

Lord Dalton pointed to a letter on his library table, addressed to the Chief of the London Detective Police Force.

‘I will delay posting this for a week,’ he said. ‘If, at the end of the time, you send me a sufficiently encouraging first report, the case shall be left unreservedly in your hands.’

At the end of the week the report was sent in. Lord Dalton first destroyed his letter to London, and then spoke to Parley on the subject of the reward.

‘As a well-informed police-officer,’ he said, ‘you are no doubt aware that I am one of the three richest men in Scotland. Have you also heard that I am a stingy man?’

‘I have heard exactly the contrary, my lord,’ Parley answered, with perfect truth.

‘Very good. You will be inclined to believe me, when I tell you that the money value of my picture (large as it may be) is the least part of its value in my estimation. The sheriff tells me that you have a wife and two daughters at home, and that you were about to retire on a pension when you offered your services. At your age, I must take that circumstance into consideration. Do you mind telling me what income you have to look forward to; adding your other pecuniary resources (if you have any) to your pension?’

Parley answered the question without hesitation, and without reserve. Ha was not an easy man to astonish; but Lord Dalton’s next words literally struck him speechless.

‘Put my Raphael back in the frame, within a month from this day,’ said his lordship, ‘and I will treble your income, and secure it to your widow and children after you.’

In less than three weeks from that date, Benjamin Parley (just arrived from Brussels) walked into the picture gallery, and put the Raphael back into the frame with his own hands. He refused to say how he had recovered the picture. But he announced, with an appearance of self-reproach which entirely failed to deceive Lord Dalton, the disastrous escape of his prisoner on the journey to Scotland. At a later period, scandal whispered that this same prisoner was a vagabond member of my lord’s family, and that Parley’s success had been due, in the first instance, to his wise courage in daring to suspect a nobleman’s relative. I don’t know what your experience may be. For my own part, I have now and then found scandal building on a well-secured foundation.

2

In relating the circumstances which made the generous nobleman and the skilled police-officer acquainted with each other, I have borne in mind certain results, the importance of which you have yet to estimate. The day on which Benjamin Parley received his magnificent reward proved to be the fatal day in his life.

He had originally planned to retire to the village in Perthshire in which he had been born. Being now possessed of an income which enabled him to indulge the ambition of his wife and daughters, it was decided that he should fix his residence in one of the suburbs of the city. Mrs Parley and her two girls, established in ‘a genteel villa,’ assumed the position of ‘ladies’; and old Benjamin, when time hung heavy on his hands, was within half an hour’s walk of his colleagues in the police force. ‘But for my lord’s generosity,’ his wife remarked, ‘he would not have had the resource. If we had gone to Perthshire, he would never, in all likelihood, have seen our city again.’

To give you some idea of this poor fellow’s excellent character, and of the high estimation in which he was deservedly held, I may mention that his retirement was celebrated by the presentation of a testimonial. It assumed the quaint form of a receipted bill, representing the expenses incurred in furnishing his new house. I took the chair at the meeting. The landed gentry, the lawyers, and the merchants were present in large numbers; all equally desirous of showing their respect for a man who, in a position beset by temptations, had set an example of incorruptible integrity from first to last.

Some family troubles of mine, at that time, obliged me to apply for leave of absence. For two months my duties were performed by deputy.

Examining the letters and cards which covered the study-table on my return, I found a morsel of paper with some lines of writing on it in pencil, signed by Parley’s wife. ‘When you can spare a little time, sir, pray be so good as to let me say a word to you — at your house.’

The handwriting showed plain signs of agitation; and the last three words were underlined. Was the good woman burdened with a domestic secret? and were her husband and children not admitted to her confidence?

I was so busily occupied, after my absence, that I could only make an appointment to see Mrs Parley at my breakfast time. The hour was so early that she would be sure to find me alone.

The moment she entered the room I saw a change in her, which prepared me for something serious. It may be, perhaps, desirable to add, by way explaining a certain tendency to excitement and exaggeration in Mrs Parley’s ways of thinking and speaking, that she was a Welsh woman.

‘Is there anything wrong at home?’ I asked.

She began to cry. ‘You know how proud I was, sir, of our grand house, and our splendid income. I wish we had gone where we first thought of going — hundred, of miles away from this place! I wish Parley had never seen his lordship, and never earned the great reward!’

‘You don’t mean to tell me,‘I said, ‘that you and your husband have quarrelled?’

‘Worse, sir, — worse than that. Parley is so changed that my own husband is like a stranger to me. For God’s sake, don’t mention it! In your old age, after sleeping together for thirty years and more, I’m cast off. Parley has his bedroom, and I have mine!’ She looked at me — and blushed. At nearly sixty years of age, the poor creature blushed like a young girl!

It is needless to say that the famous question of the French philosopher was on the tip of my tongue: ‘Who is she?’ But I owed it to Parley’s unblemished reputation to hesitate before I committed myself to a positive opinion. The question of the beds was clearly beyond the reach of my interference. ‘In what other ways does Parley seem to be changed?’ I inquired.

‘Seem?’ she repeated. ‘Why even the girls notice it! They their father doesn’t care about them now. And it’s true! In our present prosperity, we can afford to pay a governess; and when we first settled in the new house, Parley agreed with me that the poor things ought to be better educated. He has lost all interest in their welfare. If I only mention the matter now, he says, “Oh! bother!” and discourages me in that way. You know, sir, he always dressed respectably, according to his station and time of life. That’s all altered now. He has gone to a new tailor; he wears smart cutaway coats, like the young men; I found an elastic belt among his clothes — the sort of thing they advertise to keep down fat, and preserve the figure. You were so kind as to give him a snuff-box, on his last birthday. It’s of no more use to him now. Benjamin has given up taking snuff.’

Here I thought it desirable, in the interests of good Mrs Parley herself, to bring the recital of her grievances to a close. The domestic situation (to speak the language of the stage) was more than sufficiently revealed to me. After an exemplary life, the model husband and father had fallen in the way of one of those temptations which are especially associated with the streets of a great city — and had yielded at the end of his career. A disastrous downfall; not altogether without precedent in the history of frail humanity, even at the wintry period of life! I was sorry, truly sorry; but in my position what could I do?

‘I am at your service,’ I said, ‘if you will only tell me how I can advise you.’

‘Some hussy has got hold of Benjamin!’ cried the poor woman. ‘And I don’t know where to find her. What am I to do? Benjamin’s too deep for me — I believe I shall go mad!’

She fell back on her chair, and began to beat her hands on her lap. If I permitted this hysterical agitation to proceed in its usual course of development, the household would be alarmed by an outburst of screaming. There was but one way of composing Mrs Parley, and I took it.

‘Suppose I speak to your husband?’ I suggested.

‘Oh, Mr Sheriff —!’

In Mrs Parley’s excitable Welsh nature even gratitude threatened to express itself hysterically. I checked the new outbreak by putting some necessary questions. The few facts which I succeeded in eliciting did not present my coming interview with the husband in an encouraging light.

After moving into the new house, Parley had found some difficulty (naturally enough) in reconciling himself to the change in his life. From time to time (as his wife had suggested) he looked in at the police office, and had offered the benefit of his experience to his colleagues when they were in need of advice. For a while these visits to the city produced the good results which had been anticipated. Then followed the very complete and very suspicious change in him, already related to me. While the husband and wife still occupied the same room at night, Mrs Parley discovered that Benjamin was disturbed by dreams. For the first time in all her experience, she heard him talking in his sleep. Here and there, words escaped him which seemed to allude to a woman — a woman whom he called ‘my dear’ — a woman who had apparently placed some agitating confidence in him. Sensible enough under other circumstances, Mrs Parley’s jealousy had hurried her into an act of folly. She woke her husband and insisted on an explanation. The result had been the institution of separate bedrooms — on the pretence that Parley’s sense of conjugal duty would not permit him to be the means of disturbing his wife’s rest. Arriving, correctly enough, at the conclusion that he was afraid of betraying himself, Mrs Parley had tried the desperate experiment of following him privately when he next left the house. A police-officer of forty years’ experience, with a secret to keep, sees before him and behind him, and on his right hand and his left, at one and the same time. Poor Mrs Parley, discovered as a spy, felt the look that her husband gave her (to use her own expression) ‘in the marrow of her bones.’ His language had been equally alarming. ‘Try it again,’ he said, ‘and you will have seen the last of me.’ She had naturally been afraid to try it again; and there she was, at my breakfast table, with but one hope left — the hope that the Sheriff would assist her!

3

Such was my interview with the wife. My interview with the husband produced one result, for which I was in some degree prepared. It satisfied me that any interference on my part would be worse than useless.

I had certain claims on Parley’s gratitude and respect, which he had hitherto recognised with heartfelt sincerity. When we now stood face to face — before a word had passed between us — I saw one ting clearly: my hold over him was lost.

For Mrs Parley’s sake I could not allow myself to be discouraged at the outset.

‘Your wife was with me yesterday,’ I said, ‘in great distress.’

His voice told me that he had suffered — and was still suffering — keenly. I also noticed that the lines marked by age in his face had deepened. He evidently felt that he stood before me a man self-degraded in his old age. On the other hand, it was just as plain that he was determined to deceive me if I attempted to penetrate his secret.

My one chance of producing the right impression was to appeal to his sense of self-respect, if any such sense was still left in him.

‘Don’t suppose that I presume to interfere between you and your wife,’ I resumed. ‘In what little I have now to say to you, I shall bear in mind the high character that you have always maintained, not only among your own friends, but among persons like myself, who are placed above you by the accidents of birth and position.’

‘You are very good, sir. I assure you I feel —’

He paused. I waited to let him go on. His eyes dropped before mine. He seemed to be afraid to follow the good impulse that I had roused in him. I tried again.

‘Without repeating what Mrs Parley has said to me,’ I proceeded, ‘I may tell you at what conclusion I have myself arrived. It is only doing you justice to suppose that your wife has been mislaid by false appearances. Will you go back to her, and satisfy that she has been mistaken?’

‘She wouldn’t believe me, sir.’

‘Will you at least, try the experiment?’

He shook his head doggedly. ‘Quite useless,’ he answered. ‘My wife’s temper —’

I stopped him there.

‘Make some allowance for your wife’s temper,’ I said, ‘and don’t forget that you owe some consideration to your daughters. Spare them the shame and distress of seeing their father and mother at enmity.’

His manner changed: I had said something which appeared to give him confidence.

‘Did my wife say anything to you about our girls?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She thought you neglectful of your daughters.’

‘Anything else, sir?’

‘She said you had, at one time, acknowledged that the girls ought to have a good governess; but she now finds you indifferent to the best interests of your children.’

He lifted one of his hands, with a theatrical exaggeration of gesture, quite new in my experience of him.

‘She said that, did she? Now, Mr Sheriff, judge for yourself what my wife’s complaints of me are worth! I have this day engaged a governess for my children.’

I looked at him.

Once more his eyes dropped before mine.

‘Does Mrs Parley know what you have done?’ I inquired.

‘She shall know,’ he answered loudly, almost insolently, ‘when I return home.’

‘I am obliged to you for coming here, Mr Parley. Don’t let me detain you any longer.’

‘Does that mean, sir, that you disapprove of what I have done?’

‘I pronounce no opinion.’

‘Does it mean that you doubt the governess’s character?’

‘It means that I regret having troubled you to come here — and that I have no more to say.’

He walked to the door — opened it — hesitated — and came back to me.

‘I ask your pardon, sir, if I have been in any way rough in speaking to you. You will understand perhaps that I am a little troubled in my mind.’ He considered with himself, and took from his pocket the snuff-box to which his wife had alluded. ‘I’ve given up the habit, sir, of taking snuff. It’s slovenly, and — and not good for the health. But I don’t feel the less honoured by your gift. I shall prize it gratefully, as long as I live.’

He turned his head away — but not quickly enough to hide the tears that filled his eyes. For a moment all that was best and truest in the nature of Benjamin Parley had forced its way to expression. But the devil in possession of him was not to be cast out. He became basely ashamed of the good impulse that did him honour. ‘The sun is very bright this morning,’ he muttered confusedly; ‘my eyes are rather weak, sir. I wish you good morning.’

4

Left by myself I rang the bell, and gave the servant his instructions. If Mr or Mrs Parley called again at the house they were to be told that I was not able to see them.

Was this a harsh act on my part? Let us look the matter fairly in the face and see.

It is possible that some persons, not having had my experience of the worst aspects of human nature, might have been inclined to attribute Mrs Parley’s suspicions to her jealous temper, and might have been not unwilling to believe that her husband had engaged a governess for his children in perfect good faith. No such merciful view of the matter presented itself to my mind. Nothing could be plainer to me than that Parley was an instrument in the hands of a bold and wicked woman; who had induced him, for reasons of her own, to commit an act which was nothing less than an outrage on his wife. To what purpose could I interfere? The one person who could help poor Mrs Parley must be armed with the authority of a relation. And, even in this case, what good result could be anticipated if the woman played her part as governess discreetly, and if Parley held firm? A more hopeless domestic prospect, so far, had never presented itself to my view. It vexed and humiliated me to find myself waiting helplessly for events. What else could I do?

On the next day Mrs Parley called, and the servant followed his instructions.

On the day after (with the pardonable pertinacity of a woman in despair), she wrote to me.

The letter has been long since destroyed; but the substance of it remains in my memory. It informed me that the governess was actually established in the house; and described her, it is needless to say, as the most shameless wretch that had ever breathed the breath of life. Asked if he had obtained a reference to her character, Parley had replied that he was old enough to know how to engage a governess: that he refused to answer impertinent questions; and that he had instructed ‘Miss Beaumont’ (this was the lady’s well-sounding name) to follow his example. She had already contrived to steal her way into the confidence of her two innocent pupils, and to produce a favourable impression on a visitor who had called at the house that morning. In one word, Mrs Parley’s position was, on her own showing, beyond the reach of help. As I had anticipated, the false governess played her part with discretion, and the infatuated husband asserted his authority.

Ten days later, I happened to be driving through the suburb of our city, and I discovered Mrs Parley in close conversation with one of the younger members of the detective police force, named Butler. They were walking slowly along a retired path which led out of the high-road; so interested apparently in what they had to say to each other that they failed to notice me, though I passed close by them.

The next morning Butler presented himself at my office, and asked leave to speak to me. Being busy that day, I sent a message back, inquiring if the matter was of any importance. The answer was, ‘Of most serious importance.’ He was immediately admitted to my private room.

5

The little I had heard of this young police officer represented him to be ‘a rising man,’ resolute and clever, and not very scrupulous in finding his way to his own ends. ‘Thoroughly useful, but wants looking after.’ There was the superintendent’s brief description of Mr Butler.

I warned him at the outset that I had but little time to spare. ‘Say what is necessary, but put it in few words. What is your business with me?’

‘My business relates, sir, to something that has happened in the house of Benjamin Parley. He has got himself into a serious scrape.’

I should have made a bad detective policeman. When I hear anything that interests or excites me, my face has got a habit of owning it. Butler had merely to look at me, and to see that he might pass over certain explanations which he had been prepared to offer.

‘Mrs Parley told me, sir, that you had permitted her husband to speak to you. May I take it for granted that you have heard of the governess? Parley met the woman in the street. He was struck by her personal appearance; he got into conversation with her; he took her into a restaurant, and gave her a dinner; he heard her interesting story; he fell in love with her, like an infernal old fool — oh, I beg your pardon!’

‘Quite needless to apologise, Mr Butler. When he permitted the woman to be governess to his children, he behaved like a scoundrel, as well as a fool. Go on. You have discovered, of course, what object she has in establishing herself in Parley’s house?’

‘I will ask leave to tell you first, sir, how I made the discovery.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you won’t believe who the woman really is, unless I convince you beforehand that I have committed no mistake.’

‘Is she a person of celebrity?’

‘She is known wherever there is a newspaper published.’

‘And conceals herself, of course,’ I said, ‘under an assumed name?’

‘And what is more, sir, she would never have been found out — but for the wife’s jealousy. Everybody but that old woman was wheedled into liking Miss Beaumont. Mrs Parley believed the charming governess to be an imposter, and, being determined to expose her, applied to me for advice. The one morsel of evidence that induced me to look into the matter, came from the servant girl. Miss Beaumont’s bedroom was at the back of the house. One night the servant heard her softly open her window, and saw her empty her wash-hand basin into the garden. The customary means of emptying her basin, were, of course, ready and waiting in her room. Have you ever dropped into an actor’s dressing-room, sir, when he has done his work on the stage?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘Have you accidentally looked at the basin when he washes his face before he goes home?’

‘Not that I remember.’

‘In such cases, sir, the actor often leaves, what you may call, a tinge of his complexion in the water; and the colour might strike an observant person. If I had not begun life on the stage, it would never have occurred to me that Miss Beaumont’s reason for privately emptying her basin might be connected with a false complexion — occasionally removed, you know, at night, and put on again the next morning. A mere guess, you will say, and more likely to be wrong than right. I don’t dispute it; I only say that my guess encouraged me to make one or two inquiries. It’s needless to trouble you, sir, by speaking of the difficulties that I found in my way. Let me only say that I contrived to get the better of them. Last night, after old Parley was safe in bed, his wife and his servant and I invaded the sanctuary of Miss Beaumont’s room. We were not at all afraid of waking the lady, having taken the precaution (at supper time) of giving her — let us say, the blessing of a good night’s rest. She had seemingly been a little irritable and restless before she went to sleep. At any rate, her wig was thrown on the floor. We passed by that, and went to the bed. She lay on her back; her mouth was open, and her arms were flung out on either side of her. Her own pretty fair hair was not very long; and her false colour (she was disguised, sir, as a dark lady in public) was left that night on her face and neck and hands. So far, we had only discovered that she was, what Mrs Parley believed her to be — an imposter, unknown. It was left for me to find out who the woman really was. The fastening of her night-dress round the throat had given way. Her bosom was exposed. Upon my soul I was terrified when the truth burst on me! There it was, sir, and no mistake — there, on the right side, under the right breast —’

I started out of my chair. On my writing-table lay a handbill, which I had read and reread till I knew it by heart. It had been distributed by the London authorities throughout the United&nbp;Kingdom; and it contained the description of a woman suspected of a terrible crime, who had baffled the pursuit of the police. I looked at the handbill; I looked at the man who was speaking to me.

‘Good God!’ I cried, ‘did you see the scar?’

‘I saw it, Mr Sheriff, as plainly as I see you.’

‘And the false eye-tooth on the left side of her mouth?’

‘Yes, sir — with the gold fastening to speak for it.’

Years have passed since the conversation took place which I have just related. But some persons must remember a famous criminal trail in London — and would recognise, if I felt myself at liberty to mention it, the name of the most atrocious murderess of modern times.

6

The warrant was issued for the woman’s arrest. Competent witnesses identified her, and the preliminaries of the law took their course.

To me, the serious part of the discovery was the part which cast suspicion on the unfortunate Benjamin Parley. Appearances were indisputably against him. He was not only suspected; he was actually charged with assisting the murderess to escape from justice. For the trouble that had now fallen on him, I could be of some use in assisting Parley, and in comforting his unhappy family.

You will hardly believe the assertion, but I declare it to be true, the man’s infatuation kept its hold on him more firmly than ever. His own interests were of no sort of importance to him; he seemed to be but little affected even by the distress of his wife and family; his one over-whelming anxiety was for the prisoner. ‘I believe in her innocence,’ he actually said to me, ‘as I believe in my religion. She is falsely accused, sir, of that horrible crime.’ He was incapable of resenting, he was even incapable of appreciating the cruel deception that she had practised on him. In one word, he was more devotedly in love with her than ever.

And, mind, there was no madness in this! I can answer for it, from my own experience; he was in perfect possession of his faculties.

The order came to have the woman removed to London, to be tried at the Central Criminal Court. Parley had heard of it. In the most moving terms he entreated me to have him set at liberty, and to trust him with the duty of taking charge of the prisoner!

It was my business to see her placed in the railway carriage, under proper guard. The train started in the morning. She refused to leave her bed. As a matter of course, I was sent for in this emergency.

The murderess was not a beautiful woman; she was not even a pretty woman. But she had a voluptuous smile, a singularly musical voice, a fine figure, and a supreme confidence in herself. The moment I entered the room, the horrible creature tried her powers of fascination on the Sheriff — she assumed the character of an innocent victim, overwhelmed by suffering of body and mind. I looked at my watch, and told her she had no time to lose. Not in the least disconcerted, she shifted to a new character; she took me, gayly and cynically, into her confidence. ‘My dear sir, you would never have caught me,’ she said, ‘if I had not made one mistake. As governess in the family of an expolice-officer I should have been safe from discovery if I had not taken for granted that I could twist Parley’s old woman round my little finger, like the rest of them. Who would have thought she could have been jealous of an ugly old husband at her time of life? Wouldn’t you have said yourself, “All that sort of thing must have been over long ago, when a woman is sixty years old and more?” Can there be jealousy without love? And do we love when we are hideously flabby creatures covered with wrinkles? Oh, fie! fie!’

I took out my watch once more.

‘If I don’t hear that you are up and dressed in ten minutes,’ I said, ‘I will have you wrapped in a blanket and taken to the railway by main force.’

With that warning I left the room. The women in charge of her told me afterward that her language was too terrible to be repeated. But she was quick enough to see that I was in earnest; and she was up and dressed in time for the train.

7

When I tell you that Parley was one of the witnesses examined at the trial, you will understand that we had relieved him from the serious charge of being (in the legal phrase) ‘an accessory after the fact.’ He went to London as firmly convinced of her innocence as ever. She was found guilty on irresistible evidence, and sentenced to death.

On the conclusion of the trial, Parley had not returned to his family; he had not even written. His wife followed him to London. He seemed hardly to know her again.

The one idea in possession of him was the hopeless idea of obtaining a reprieve. He was absolutely indifferent to every other earthly consideration. Ignorant people thought him mad. He wrote to the newspapers; he haunted the Government offices; he forced his way into the house of the judge who had presided at the trial. An eminent medical man was consulted. After careful examination he pronounced the patient to be perfectly sane.

Through the influence of friends in London, who were known to the city authorities, the poor wretch gained admittance to the prison, while the criminal was waiting for execution. His wife heard what happened at the interview; but was never able to repeat it; to me or to any one. The same miserable cry always escaped her if she was pressed on the subject. ‘Oh don’t ask me! Don’t ask me!’

On the evening before the execution, he burst into a fit of hysterical crying. That outbreak of violent emotion was followed by a cataleptic seizure. More than eight and forty hours passed before consciousness returned. They feared the loss of reason when he had gained the capacity to feel and suffer. No such result attended his recovery.

On the same day he spoke of her to others for the first and last time. He said, very quietly, with a remarkable stillness in his face, ‘Is she dead?’ They answered, Yes. He said no more.

The next morning his wife asked if he would go back to Scotland with her. He was quite ready to do anything that she wished. Two or three days after their return I saw him. His grey hair had become perfectly white; his manner was subdued; his face, full of vivid expression in past days, seemed to have fallen into a state of changeless repose. That was all.

After an interval, I asked his wife and children if they noticed any change for the worse in him. Except that he was very silent, they noticed no change for the worse. He was once more the good husband and kind father of their past happy experience. Did he ever speak of the woman? Never.

I was not quite satisfied. A month later Mrs Parley asked me if I thought a friend of mine, who was one of our greatest living physicians, could do Benjamin any good. I asked what was the matter with him. ‘He seems to be getting weak,’ was the only reply.

The same day I took my friend with me to Parley’s house. After looking at the patient, and putting some questions, he asked to be allowed to make a complete examination. The two retired. When they returned, Mrs Parley was naturally a little alarmed. ‘Is there anything that’s wrong, sir?’ she asked. And to my astonishment, the doctor answered, ‘Nothing that I can find out.’

When we had left the house, I put the question to him, ‘What does this mean?’

‘It means,’ he answered, ‘that the old man is dying; and I can’t find out why.’

Once in every week the great physician visited Parley, always refusing to take his fee; but now and then asking permission to bring a medical friend with him. One day he called on me, and said, ‘If you want to say “good-bye” to the old police-officer, you have no time to lose.’ I went to the house the same day. Parley was asleep. I returned some hours later. Parley was dead. I asked what he had died of, and the doctor said, ‘We have obtained the widow’s permission to make a post mortem examination. Wait a little.’

I waited until the funeral was over, and then returned to the subject.

‘What discoveries did you make at the post-mortem examination?’

‘We made no discoveries.’

‘But there must have been some cause for his death?’

‘I called it “decay of nature” on the certificate,’ my friend answered. ‘A mere pretence! The man’s constitution was sound; and he had not reached seventy years of age. A registrar of deaths has nothing to do with questions of sentiment. A doctor’s certificate is bound to deal with facts, otherwise —’

He paused, and drew me out of hearing of the mourners lingering in the churchyard.

‘Don’t mention it among my colleagues,’ he said. ‘If there really is such a thing — Benjamin Parley has died of a broken heart.’

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