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[-75-]

CHAPTER XXIX.

THE BLACK CHAMBER.

    Once more does the scene change.
    The reader who follows us through the mazes of our narrative, has yet to be introduced to many strange places - many hideous haunts of crime, abodes of poverty, dens of horror, and lurking-holes of perfidy - as well as many seats of wealthy voluptuousness and aristocratic dissipation.
    It will be our task to guide those who choose to accompany us, to scenes and places whose very existence may appear to belong to the regions of romance rather than to a city in the midst of civilisation, and whose characteristic features are as yet unknown to even those that are the best acquainted with the realities of life.
    About a fortnight had elapsed since the events related in the preceding chapter.
    In a small, high, well-lighted room five individuals were seated at a large round oaken table. One of these persons, who appeared to be the superior was an elderly man with a high forehead, and thin white hair falling over the collar of his black coat. He was short and rather corpulent: his countenance denoted frankness and good-nature; but his eyes, which were small, grey, and sparkling, had a lurking expression of cunning, only perceptible to the acute observer. The other three individuals were young and gentlemanly-looking men, neatly dressed, and very deferential in their manners towards their superior.
    The door of this room was carefully bolted. At one end of the table was a large black tray covered. with an immense quantity of bread-seals of all sizes. Perhaps the reader may recall to mind that, amongst the pursuits and amusements of his school-days, he diverted himself with moistening the crumb of bread, and kneading it with his fingers into a consistency capable of taking and retaining an accurate impres-[-76-]sion of a seal upon a letter. The seals - or rather blank bread-stamps - now upon the tray, were of this kind, only more carefully manufactured, and well consolidated with thick gum-water.
    Close by this tray, in a large wooden bowl were wafers of all sizes and colours: and in a box also standing on the table, were numbers of wafer-stamps of every dimension used. A second box contained thin blades of steel, set fast in delicate ivory handles, and sharp as razors. A third box was filled with sticks of sealing-wax of all colours, and of foreign as well as British manufacture. A small glass retort fixed over a spirit-lamp, was placed near one of the young men. A tin-box containing a little cushion covered with printer's red ink in one compartment and several stamps such as the reader may have seen used in post-offices, in another division, lay open near the other articles mentioned. Lastly, an immense pile of letters - some sealed, and others wafered - stood upon that end of the table at which the elderly gentleman was seated.
    The occupations of these five individuals may be thus described in a few words.
    The old gentleman took no the letters one by one, and bent them open, as it were, in such a way, that he could read a portion of their contents when they were not folded in such a manner as effectually to conceal all the writing. He also examined the addresses, and consulted a long paper of an official character which lay upon the table at his right hand. Some of the letters he threw, after as careful a scrutiny as he could devote to them without actually breaking the seals or wafers, into a large wicker basket at his feet. From time to time, however, he passed a letter to the young man who sate nearest to him.
    If the letters were closed with wax, an impression of the seal was immediately taken by means of one of the bread stamps. The young man then took the letter and held it near the large fire which burnt in the grate until the sealing-wax became so softened by the heat that the letter could be easily opened without tearing the paper. The third clerk read it aloud, while the fourth took notes of its contents. It was then returned to the first young man, who re-sealed it by means of the impression taken on the bread stamp, and with wax which precisely matched that originally used in closing the letter. When this ceremony was performed, the letter was consigned to the same basket which contained those that had passed unopened through the hands of the Examiner.
    If the letter were fastened with a wafer, the second clerk made the water in the little glass retort boil by means of the spirit-lamp; and when the vapour gushed forth from the tube, the young man held the letter to its mouth in such a way that the steam played full upon the identical spot where the wafer was placed. The wafer thus became moistened in a slight degree; and it was only then necessary to pass one of the thin steel blades skilfully beneath the wafer, in order to, open the letter. The third young man then read this epistle, and the fourth took notes, as in the former instance. The contents being thus ascertained, the letter was easily fastened again with a very thin wafer of the same colour and size as the original; and if the job were at all clumsily done, the tin-box before noticed furnished the means of imprinting a red stamp upon the back of the letter, in such a way that a portion of the circle fell precisely over the spot beneath which the wafer was placed.
    These processes were accomplished in total silence, save when the contents of the letters were read; and then, so accustomed were those five individual, to hear the revelations of the most strange secrets and singular communications, that they seldom appeared surprised or amused - shocked or horrified, at anything which those letters made known to them. Their task seemed purely of a mechanical kind: indeed, automatons could not have shewn less passion or excitement.
    Oh! vile - despicable occupation, - performed, too, by men who went forth, with heads erect and confident demeanour, from their atrocious employment - after having violated those secrets which are deemed most sacred, and broken the seals which merchants, lovers, parents, relations, and friends had placed upon their thoughts!
    Base and diabolical outrage - perpetrated by the commands of the Ministers of the Sovereign!
    Reader, this small, high, well-lighted room, in which such infamous scenes took place with doors well secured by bolts and bars, was the Black Chamber of the General Post-Office, Saint Martin'-le Grand.
   
And now, reader, do you ask whether all this be true ;- whether, in the very heart of the metropolis of the civilized world, such a system and such a den of infamy can exist ;- whether, in a word, the means of transferring thought at a cheap and rapid rate, be really made available to the purposes of government and the ends of party policy? If you ask these questions, to each and all do we confidently and boldly answer "YES."
    The first letter which the Examiner caused to be opened on the occasion when we introduce our readers to the Black Chamber, was from the State of Castelcicala, in Italy, to the representative of that Grand-Duchy at the English court. Its contents, when translated, ran thus:-

               City of Montoni, Castelcicala.
"I am desired by my lord the Marquis of Gerrano, his Highness's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to inform your Excellency that, in consequence of a general amnesty just proclaimd by His Serene Highness, and which includes all  political prisoners and emigrants, passports to return to the Grand Duchy of Castelcicala, may be accorded to his Highness Alberto Prince of Castelcicala, nephew of his Serene Highness the Reigning Grand Duke, as well as to all other natives of Castelcicala now resident in England, but who may be desirous of returning to their own country, 
    "I have the honour to renew to your Excellency assurances of my most perfect consideration.
    "BARON RUPERTO,
            "Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affair., &c. &c.

    The second letter perused upon this occasion, by the inmates of the Black Chamber, was from a famous London Banker to his father at Manchester:-

"You will be astounded, my dear father, when your eye meets the statement I am now at length compelled to make to you. The world believes my establishment to be as firmly based as the rocks themselves: my credit is unlimited, and thousands have confided their funds to my care. Alas, my dear father. I am totally insolvent: the least drain upon the bank would plunge me into irredeemable ruin and dishonour. I have, however, an opportunity of retrieving myself, and building up my fortunes: a certain government operation is proposed to me; and if I can undertake it, my profits will be immense. Fifty thousand pounds are absolutely necessary for my purposes within six days from the present time. Consider whether you will save your son by making him this advance; or allow him to sink into infamy, disgrace and ruin, by withholding it. Whichever way you may determine breathe not a word to a soul. The authorities in the Treasury have made all possible inquiries concerning me, and believe me to be not only solvent, but immensely rich. I expect your answer by return of post.
    Your affectionate but almost heart-broken son,
            "JAMES TOMLINSON

[-77-] The writer of this letter flattered himself that the government had already made "all possible enquiries:"  - he little dreamt that his own epistle was to furnish the Treasury, through the medium of the Post Office, with the very information which he had so fondly deemed unknown to all save himself.
    When the third letter was opened, the clerk whose duty it was to read it, looked at the signature, and, addressing himself to the Examiner, said, "From whom, sir, did you anticipate that this letter came?"
    "From  Lord Tremordyn. Is it not directed to Lady Tremordyn?" exclaimed the Examiner.
    "It is, sir," answered the clerk. "But it is written by that lady's daughter Cecilia."
    "I am very sorry for that. The Home Office," said the Examiner, "is particularly anxious to ascertain the intention of Lord Tremordyn in certain party matters; and it is known," he added, referring to the official paper beside him, "that his lordship communicates all his political sentiments to her ladyship, who in now at Bath."
    "Then, sir, this letter need not be read?" cried the clerk interrogatively.
    "Not read, young man!" ejaculated the Examiner, impatiently. "How often am I to tell you that every letter which is once opened is to be carefully perused? Have we not been able to afford time government and the police some very valuable information at different times, by noting the contents of letters which we have opened by mistake?"
    "Certainly," added the first clerk. "There is that deeply-planned and well-laid scheme of Stephens, and his young lady disguised as a man, who lives at Upper Clapton, which we discovered by the mere accident of opening a wrong letter."
    "I beg your pardon, sir," said the clerk whose duty it was to read the epistles, and whose apology to the Examiner was delivered in a most deferential manner. "I will now proceed with the letter of the Honourable Miss Cecilia Huntingfield to her mother Lady Tremordyn."
    The young clerk then read as follows:-

    "Oh! my dear mother, how shall I find words to convey to you the fearful tale of my disgrace and infamy of which I am the unhappy and guilty heroine? A thousand times before you left London, I was on the point of throwing myself at your feet and confessing all! But, no - I could not - I dared not. And now, my dear parent, I can conceal my shame no longer! Oh! how shall I make you comprehend me, without actually entrusting this paper with the fearful secret? My God! I am almost distracted. Surely you can understand my meaning? If not, learn the doleful tidings at once, my dearest and most affectionate parent: I AM ABOUT TO BECOME A MOTHER! Oh! do not spurn me from you - do not curse your child! It has cost me pangs of anguish ineffable, and of mental agony an idea of which I could not convey to you, to sit down and rend your heart with this avowal. But O heavens! what am I to do? Concealment is no longer possible: IN THREE MONTHS MORE I SHALL BE A MOTHER! That villain Harborough - the friend of our family, Sir Rupert Harborough,- the man in whom my dear father put every confidence, - that wretch has caused my shame! And yet there are times, my dear mother, when I feel that I love him ;- for he is the father of the child which most soon publish my disgrace! And now, my fond - confiding - tender parent, you know all. Oh! come to my rescue: adopt some means to conceal my shame ;- shield me from my father's wrath! I can write no more at present: but my mind feels relieved now I have thus opened my heart to my mother.
    "Your afflicted and almost despairing daughter,
            CECILIA HUNTINGFIELD."

Thus was a secret involving the honour of a noble family, - a secret compromising the most sacred interests - revealed to five men at one moment, by means of the atrocious system pursued in the Black Chamber of the General Post Office.
    The fourth letter was from Mr. Robert Stephens of London to his brother Mr. Frederick Stephens of Liverpool:-

"MY DEAR BROTHER,
            "I write you a few hasty instructions, to which I solicit your earnest attention. You are well aware that the 26th instant is my grand day - the day to which I have been so long and so anxiously looking forward. All my schemes are so well organized that detection is impossible. That fellow Montague gave me a little trouble a fortnight or so ago, by suddenly and most unexpectedly declaring that he would not act as the witness of identity; and I was actually compelled to give him five hundred pounds to silence him. What could have been his motive for shirking out of the affair I cannot tell. Be that as It may, I have supplied his place with another and better man - a lawyer of the name of Mac Chizzle. But now for my instructions. The grand blow will be struck soon after mid-day on the 26th instant. Immediately it is done I shall give Walter (I always speak of HER as a man) the ten thousand pounds I have promised him, and then off to Liverpool in a post-chaise and four. Now, if there be a packet for America on the 27th, secure me a berth; if not, ascertain if there be a vessel sailing for Havre or Bordeaux on that day, and them secure me a berth in such ship:- but should there be none in this instance also, then obtain a list of all the ships which, according to present arrangements, are to leave Liverpool on the 27th, with their place of destination, and all other particulars.
    "Burn this letter the moment you have read it: we then know that it cannot possibly have told tales.
        "Your affectionate brother,
                "ROBERT STEPHENS." 

    Poor deluded man! he believed that letters confided to the General Post Office administration could "tell no tales" during their progress from the sender to the receiver:- how miserably was he mistaken!
    And here we may observe, that if the system of opening letters at the General Post Office were merely adopted for the purpose of discovering criminals and preventing crime, we should still deprecate the proceeding, although our objections would lose much of their point in consideration of the motive; but when we find - and know it to be a fact - that the secrets of correspondence are flagrantly violated for political and other purposes, we raise our voice to denounce so atrocious a system, and to excite the indignation of the country against the men who can countenance or avail themselves of it!
    Numerous other letters were read upon the occasion referred to in this chapter; and their contents carefully noted down. The whole ceremony was conducted with so much regularity and method, that it proceeded with amazing despatch; and the re-fastening of the letters was managed with such skill that in few, if' any instances, were the slighted traces left to excite suspicion of the process to which those epistles had been subjected.
    It was horrible to see that old man forgetting the respectability of his years, and those four young ones laying aside the fine feelings which ought to have animated their bosoms,- it was horrible to see them earnestly, systematically, and skilfully devoting themselves to an avocation the most disgraceful, soul-debasing, and morally execrable!
    When the ceremony of opening, reading, and resealing the letters was concluded, one of the clerks conveyed the basket containing them to that department of the establishment where they were to undergo the process of sorting and sub-sorting for despatch by the evening mails; and the Examiner then proceeded to make his reports to the various offices of the government. The notes of the despatch from Castelcicala were forwarded to the foreign secretary: the contents of the banker's letter to his father were copied and sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the particulars at Miss Cecilia Huntingfield's affect-[-78-]ing epistle to her mother were entered in a private book in case they should be required at a future day; - and an exact copy of Robert Stephens' letter to his brother was forwarded to the Solicitor of the Bank of England.

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