chapter < | THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON
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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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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,
[-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
"Your afflicted and almost despairing daughter,
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,
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,
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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