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The Stolen Letter

In Paris, just after dark, one windy evening in the autumn of 18—, I was enjoying a quiet smoke with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, at his home in Faubourg St-Germain. We had been together for at least an hour, when our old friend, Monsieur G—, the head of the Paris police, called to see Dupin.

We welcomed him warmly, since we found his presence highly entertaining, and we had not seen him for some time.

We had been sitting in the dark, and Dupin now got up to light a lamp. He sat down again immediately, though, when G— said that he had called to ask for advice about some official business which had caused him a great deal of trouble.

‘If it is something which requires thought,’ said Dupin, ‘we shall consider it with more success in the dark.’

‘That is another of your strange ideas,’ said the officer, who had a habit of calling everything ‘strange’ that was beyond his power of understanding. He lived in a world of ‘strange’ events.

‘Very true,’ said Dupin, as he gave his visitor a pipe, and pushed a comfortable chair towards him.

‘And what is the difficulty now?’ I asked. ‘No one has been murdered, I hope?’

‘Oh no; nothing of that kind. The business is very simple, and I have no doubt that we can manage it quite well ourselves; but I thought that Dupin would like to hear the details of it, because it is so very strange.’

‘Simple and strange,’ said Dupin.

‘Well, yes; but not exactly that, either. The fact is we have all been extremely confused because the affair is so simple, but it has completely defeated us.’

‘Perhaps it is the simplicity of the problem that makes it so difficult for the police,’ said my friend.

‘What nonsense you do talk!’ replied G—, laughing loudly.

‘Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,’ said Dupin.

‘Well, well! Who ever heard of such an idea?’

‘And what, after all, is the trouble?’ I asked.

‘I will tell you,’ replied the officer, as he filled his pipe, and settled himself into his chair. ‘I will tell you in a few words. But before I begin, let me warn you that this is an affair of the greatest secrecy. I would almost certainly lose my position, if it became known that I had told it to anyone.’

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘Or not,’ said Dupin.

‘Well, then; I have received personal information, from a very high place, that a certain letter of great importance has been taken from the royal rooms. The person who took it is known; this is beyond doubt, since he was seen taking it. It is known, too, that it still remains in his possession.’

‘How is this known?’ asked Dupin.

‘It is known because certain things would immediately happen if the letter passed out of the robber’s possession; that is to say, if he employed it in the way that he must be planning, in the end, to employ it. These things have not yet happened.’

‘Give us more details,’ I said.

‘Well, I may say that the paper gives its holder a certain power in certain circles where such power is of immense value.’ G— was very fond of this official way of speaking.

‘I still do not quite understand,’ said Dupin.

‘No? Well, if a third person, who shall be nameless, should learn what is in the letter, then the honour of another person of the very highest rank would be in doubt. So the holder of the letter has power over the respected person whose honour and peace of mind are in danger.’

‘But this power,’ I said, ‘would be useless without full knowledge on both sides. I mean that the loser of the letter would have to know who had stolen it, and the thief would have to know that he was known. Who would dare—’

‘The thief,’ said G—, ‘is the Minister D—, who dares do anything. The letter had been received by the person to whom it was addressed, while she was alone in her sitting room. While she was reading it, the other person — the one who, as I have said, shall be nameless — entered the room. The lady wished especially to hide the letter from him, but she had no time to do so. She was forced to place it, open as it was, on a table; but the address was face up, and the letter itself escaped notice. At this moment the Minister D— entered. His sharp eye immediately saw the paper, recognized the handwriting of the address, and noticed the lady’s confusion. He guessed her secret. After some business matters had been completed, D— took out a letter from his pocket, opened it, pretended to read it, and then placed it close to the other on the table. He then continued, for another quarter of an hour, to discuss public affairs. Finally, as he was leaving, he took the lady’s letter, and left his own - one of no importance on the table. The lady saw all this, but, of course, dared not say anything in the presence of the third person who stood beside her.’

‘Here, then,’ said Dupin to me, ‘you have full knowledge on both sides, and D— has the lady in his power. She saw him take the letter, and he knows that she saw him.’

‘Yes,’ said the officer; ‘and the power gained in this way has been used, for some months past, for political purposes, to a very dangerous degree. It becomes clearer to the lady every day that she must get her letter back. But this cannot be done openly, of course. She has come to me to ask for my help.’

‘As you are the wisest adviser, I suppose,’ said Dupin, ‘whom she could desire or even imagine.’

‘It is possible that she has that opinion,’ replied G—.

‘It is clear,’ I said,’that the minister will try to keep the letter. If he destroyed it, he would lose his power over the lady. We must believe that he still has it.’

‘Exactly,’ said the officer. I feel so sure that he still has it that I have made a thorough search of his home. It was not easy, because I had to search in secret. I have been warned that it would be very dangerous for me if the minister suspected our plans.’

‘But the Paris police know very well how to search a house in secret,’ I said. ‘They have done this thing often before.’

‘Oh yes; and for this reason I did not give up hope. The habits of the minister, too, gave me a great advantage. He is frequently absent from home all night. He has few servants, and they sleep at a distance from their master’s rooms. I have keys, as you know, with which I can open any door in Paris. Every night for three months I have personally directed the search. I have promised on my honour to get this letter back; and, although it is a secret, I can tell you that the reward is immense. So I did not give up the search until I was sure that I had examined every hiding place in the house.’

‘Well, then,’ I suggested, ‘the letter may not be hidden in the house at all.’

‘It probably is in the house,’ said Dupin. ‘D— might have to produce it at a moment’s notice.’

‘Have you searched the minister himself?’ I asked.

‘Yes; my men, pretending to be robbers, have twice searched him thoroughly.’

‘That was hardly necessary,’ said Dupin. ‘ D — is not a complete fool. He would have expected something like that to happen.’

‘Not a complete fool,’ said the officer, ‘but he’s a poet, and so little better than a fool.’

‘True,’ said Dupin, sucking thoughtfully on his pipe.

‘Tell us,’ I said,’the details of your search.’

‘Well, the fact is that we searched thoroughly. We took the whole building, room by room, and spent the nights of a whole week in each. We examined the furniture first. We opened every possible drawer; and I suppose you know that, to a properly trained police officer, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. There is a certain amount of space to be accounted for in every desk or cupboard. Next we took the chairs, and we examined the seats with the fine long needles which you have seen me use. Then we took the tops of the tables off.’

‘Why?’ said Dupin.

‘To see if there was anything hidden in the legs. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are often used as hiding places in the same way.’

‘But surely you did not take the furniture to pieces completely? A letter may be rolled up tightly, and pressed into a small hole, for example, in the back of a chair.’

‘We examined every part of every piece of furniture. If there had been any small holes or changes to the design, we would not have failed to see them immediately. The smallest grain of wood dust would have been as clear to us as an apple.’

I suppose you looked at the beds and bedclothes, the curtains and the floor coverings.’

‘Of course; and when we had finished these things, we examined the house itself — every piece of every floor and wall, both inside and outside.’

‘You must have had a great deal of trouble,’ I said.

‘We did; but the reward offered is great.’

‘Did you include the grounds of the house?’

‘All the grounds are covered in brick. They gave us little trouble. We examined the soil between the bricks, and found no sign that they had been moved.’

‘You looked among D—’s papers, of course, and among the books in his library?’

‘Certainly; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every page. We also measured the thickness of every book cover, and examined each very carefully.’

‘You checked the paper on the walls?’

‘We did.’

‘Then,’ I said, ‘you have made a mistake, and the letter is not in the house, as you believed.’

‘I do not know what to think,’ said G—. ‘Now, Dupin, what do you advise me to do?’

‘To search the house thoroughly again.’

‘But that is clearly unnecessary,’ replied G—. ‘As sure as I breathe, the letter is not there.’

‘I have no better advice to give you,’ said Dupin. ‘You have, of course, a full description of the letter?’

‘Oh yes!’ — And here the officer, taking a notebook from his pocket, read aloud a detailed account of the appearance of the letter. When he had finished this, he left us, lower in spirits than I had ever known him before.

About a month afterwards he called on Dupin again, and found us sitting in the darkness, smoking, as before. He took a pipe and a chair, and began some ordinary conversation. After a little time, I said: ‘Well, G—, what about the stolen letter? Has the minister defeated you?’

‘I am afraid that he has. I searched again, as Dupin suggested; it was wasted work, as I knew it would be.’

‘How much was the reward, did you say?’ asked Dupin.

‘A very great deal — a very generous reward — I don’t like to say how much, exactly. The matter is becoming more and more urgent every day; and the reward has recently been doubled. If it were doubled again, though, I could do no more than I have done.’

‘Oh, you might, I think, do a little more.’

‘How? — in what way?’

‘Well, you might employ a good lawyer, for example. Do you remember the story of Abernethy, the doctor?’

‘No; what is it?’

‘Well, once there was a certain rich old man who tried to get a free medical opinion from Abernethy. He began an ordinary conversation with the doctor, and pretended that the case was an imaginary one. ‘We will suppose,’ said the rich old man, ‘that the man is suffering from …’ (and here the old man mentioned the name of his disease); ‘now, doctor, what would you have ordered him to take?’

‘Take!’ said Abernethy. ‘Why, take advice, of course.’

‘But,’ said the officer, a little uncomfortable, ‘I do want to take advice, and to pay for it. I would give half the reward to anyone who would help me in the matter.’

‘In that case,’ replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and taking out a chequebook, ‘you may as well write a cheque for me for that amount. When you have signed it, I will give you the letter.’

I could not hide my surprise. But G— plainly did not believe what he had heard. For some minutes he could not speak; he looked at Dupin with open mouth and wide eyes. At last he seized a pen, and, after several pauses, wrote out and signed a cheque, which he handed across the table to Dupin. My friend examined it carefully, and put it in his pocket. Then, unlocking the drawer of a desk, Dupin took out a letter and gave it to the officer. G— took it quickly, opened it with a trembling hand, and read the message. Then he rushed to the door, and out of the room, without saying a single word.

When he had gone, my friend gave me an explanation.

‘The Paris police,’ he said, ‘are very clever in the ordinary way.

They are patient and careful, and these qualities usually bring results. They have one weakness, though, and G— is, himself, an excellent example of this: they have no imagination. They never try to imagine what is in the mind of their enemy. Whatever the case, and whoever the enemy, the actions of the police are always the same. G— and his people frequently fall, first, because they do not try to get inside the mind of the wrongdoer; and second, because they do not measure properly the skill of the enemy. So when they are searching for anything hidden, they think only of the ways in which they would have hidden it. G— believes that anyone who wanted to hide a letter would hide it in one or other of the places where he searched: if not in a table leg, then in the back of a chair, or under the floorboards, or perhaps inside the cover of a book. Now in this case, the police failed really because G— considered that the minister was a fool; and he considered him a fool because he is a poet.’

‘But is D— really a poet?’ I asked. ‘There are two brothers, I know; and both are well educated. The minister, I believe, has written a good deal on scientific subjects. He is a scientist, and not a poet.’

‘You are wrong; I know him well, and he is both. As a poet and a scientist, he would be able to reason well. If he had simply been a scientist, he could not have reasoned at all, and would have been at the mercy of the police.’

‘You surprise me,’ I said, ‘with these opinions; but we had better discuss them at some other time. I am very interested now in how you found the letter. Go on.’

‘Well, I know D—, both as scientist and as a poet, and I considered him also to be a good politician and a gentleman of the Court. Such a man would expect the police to search his house. I believe that he stayed away from his home at night on purpose - to give the police the opportunity for a thorough search, so that they would decide at last that the letter was not in the building. D—, you see, knew where they would search. He knew that his furniture would be taken to pieces, and that they would look into the smallest and darkest corner of his home. It seemed to me that the minister would be forced to find a simple hiding place for the letter. You will remember, perhaps, how loudly G— laughed when I suggested at the beginning that it was possibly the simplicity of the problem that made it so difficult for him.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I remember very well. He seemed to think that you were joking.’

‘I was not joking,’ said Dupin. ‘Some things are too plain for us to see. There is a game that children are fond of, which is played on a map. One player asks the others to find a certain word — the name of a town, river or state — that is shown somewhere on the map. Now most children choose a name that is written in very small letters, since they think that such a word is harder to find.

But a good player chooses a word that stretches, in large letters, right across the map - a word that is so plain, in fact, that it escapes notice. It is the same with shop signs in the street. We stop and struggle to read every letter of the small ones, but hardly look at the big ones. Our friend G— never thought that the letter would be right under his nose; he never thought that the minister could hide the letter in the best way by not hiding it at all.

‘Such a trick, it seemed to me, completely suited the daring character of the minister; and I decided to prove that my idea was right. Wearing a pair of dark glasses, I called one morning at D—’s house. He was at home, pretending to be tired and too lazy to work, although he is really one of the busiest men in Paris.

‘Choosing a similar pretence, I complained of my weak eyes, and that I had to wear glasses. While we talked, I looked carefully around the room, but at the same time paid proper attention to the conversation.

‘I was very interested in a large writing table, near which the minister sat. A number of papers and letters, several books and a musical instrument lay on it; but after a long and detailed examination of this, from where I sat, I could see nothing to cause suspicion.

‘At last my eyes, travelling around the room, fell on an ordinary letter holder, made of wire. This hung by a dirty blue string from a small metal hook just above the fireplace. In this holder were five or six visiting cards and one letter. The letter was dirty, and torn across the middle — as if someone had started to tear it up, but had then decided to keep it. A large stamp showed the arms of the D— family very clearly. The letter was addressed, in small female handwriting, to the minister himself. It had been pushed carelessly into the top of the holder.

‘This,’ I said to myself immediately, ‘is what I have come for.’

The appearance of the letter was quite different from that of the missing one. But these details — the stamp, the address and the handwriting - could easily result from a simple change of envelope. The dirty and torn condition of the letter, and the careless way in which it lay in the holder, were quite unlike the ordinary tidy habits of D—. I believed that these things might be a part of his plan to deceive the police. When I thought of all this, and saw the letter in full view of every visitor, I had no serious doubts. As soon as I could politely end our conversation, I said goodbye to the minister and went home. I left my gold cigarette box on the table.

‘The next morning I called for the cigarette box, and talked to D for several minutes. Suddenly a gunshot was heard outside the house, followed by a loud cry and the shouts of a crowd. D— rushed to the window, threw it open and looked out. I stepped to the letter holder, took out the letter, and put it in my pocket. I put another in its place, exactly like it in appearance, which I had carefully prepared at home. Then I followed D— to the window.

‘The trouble in the street had been caused by the behaviour of a man who had fired an old gun among a crowd of women and children. When the gun was examined, it was found to have powder in it but no shot, and the man was allowed to go free.

Soon afterwards I left D—’s house. A little later I met the man with the gun, and paid him what I had promised him.’

‘But why,’ I asked,’did you put another letter into the holder?’

‘You know my political views,’ replied Dupin. In this matter. I am on the lady’s side. For eighteen months the minister has had her in his power. She now has him in hers, since it may be several weeks, or even months, before D— discovers that he no longer possesses the letter. During this time he will continue to act towards the lady as if the letter were still in his letter holder.

Sooner or later she will be able to trap him and cause his political destruction. I have no sympathy for the minister - nor for any clever man who is without honour. I must say, though, that I would like to know D—’s thoughts when at last he is forced to open the letter which I placed in his letter holder.’

‘Why? Did you write any particular message?’

‘Well, it did not seem proper to leave no message at all — that would have been insulting. In Vienna, many years ago, D— acted rather badly towards me, and I told him, quite pleasantly, that I would remember it. He will wonder who it is who has defeated him; so I decided to help him a little. He knows my handwriting well, and I just wrote in the middle of an empty page the words: ‘A trick so daring

Requires one more daring to better it.’

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