— by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe, A. E. (1839, October). William Wilson. London: Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Philadelphia, USA.
— § —
LET me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn — for the horror — for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast
of all outcasts most abandoned! — to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden
aspirations? — and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?
I would not, if I could, here or to-day, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime. This epoch — these later years — took unto themselves a sudden elevation in turpitude, whose origin alone it is my
present purpose to assign. Men usually grow base by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle. From
comparatively trivial wickedness I passed, with the stride of a giant, into more than the enormities of an Elah-Gabalus. What chance
— what one event brought this evil thing to pass, bear with me while I relate. Death approaches; and the shadow which foreruns him
has thrown a softening influence over my spirit. I long, in passing through the dim valley, for the sympathy — I had nearly said
for the pity — of my fellow men. I would fain have them believe that I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances
beyond human control. I would wish them to seek out for me, in [page 418:] the
details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error. I would have them allow — what they
cannot refrain from allowing — that, although temptation may have erewhile existed as great, man was never thus, at least,
tempted before — certainly, never thus fell. And is it therefore that he has never thus suffered? Have I not indeed been
living in a dream? And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?
I am the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them
remarkable; and, in my earliest infancy, I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was
more strongly developed; becoming, for many reasons, a cause of serious disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. I
grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions. Weak-minded, and beset with
constitutional infirmities akin to my own, my parents could do but little to check the evil propensities which distinguished me. Some
feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their part, and, of course, in total triumph on mine. Thenceforward my
voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own
will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions.
My earliest recollections of a school-life, are connected with a large, rambling, Elizabethan house, in a misty-looking
village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees, and where all the houses were excessively ancient. In truth,
it was a dream-like and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town. At this moment, in fancy, I feel the refreshing chilliness of
its deeply-shadowed avenues, inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and thrill anew with undefinable delight, at the deep
hollow note of the church-bell, breaking, each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which
the fretted Gothic steeple lay imbedded and asleep.
It gives me, perhaps, as much of pleasure as I can now in any manner experience, to dwell upon minute recollections of
the [page 419:] school and its concerns. Steeped in misery as I am — misery,
alas! only too real — I shall be pardoned for seeking relief, however slight and temporary, in the weakness of a few rambling
details. These, moreover, utterly trivial, and even ridiculous in themselves, assume, to my fancy, adventitious importance, as connected
with a period and a locality when and where I recognise the first ambiguous monitions of the destiny which afterwards so fully
overshadowed me. Let me then remember.
The house, I have said, was old and irregular. The grounds were extensive, and a high and solid brick wall, topped with
a bed of mortar and broken glass, encompassed the whole. This prison-like rampart formed the limit of our domain; beyond it we saw but
thrice a week — once every Saturday afternoon, when, attended by two ushers, we were permitted to take brief walks in a body
through some of the neighboring fields — and twice during Sunday, when we were paraded in the same formal manner to the morning
and evening service in the one church of the village. Of this church the principal of our school was pastor. With how deep a spirit of
wonder and perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote pew in the gallery, as, with step solemn and slow, he ascended the
pulpit! This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely
powdered, so rigid and so vast, — could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule
in hand, the Draconian Laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!
At an angle of the ponderous wall frowned a more ponderous gate. It was riveted and studded with iron bolts, and
surmounted with jagged iron spikes. What impressions of deep awe did it inspire! It was never opened save for the three periodical
egressions and ingressions already mentioned; then, in every creak of its mighty hinges, we found a plenitude of mystery — a world
of matter for solemn remark, or for more solemn meditation.
The extensive enclosure was irregular in form, having many capacious recesses. Of these, three or four of the largest
constituted the play-ground. It was level, and covered with fine hard gravel. I well remember it had no trees, nor benches, nor any
[page 420:] thing similar within it. Of course it was in the rear of the house.
In front lay a small parterre, planted with box and other shrubs; but through this sacred division we passed only upon rare occasions
indeed — such as a first advent to school or final departure thence, or perhaps, when a parent or friend having called for us, we
joyfully took our way home for the Christmas or Midsummer holy-days.
But the house! — how quaint an old building was this! — to me how veritably a palace of enchantment! There
was really no end to its windings — to its incomprehensible subdivisions. It was difficult, at any given time, to say with
certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four
steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable — inconceivable — and so returning in upon
themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon
infinity. During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision, in what remote locality lay the
little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars.
The school-room was the largest in the house — I could not help thinking, in the world. It was very long, narrow,
and dismally low, with pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak. In a remote and terror-inspiring angle was a square enclosure of
eight or ten feet, comprising the sanctum, “during hours,” of our principal, the Reverend Dr. Bransby. It was a solid
structure, with massy door, sooner than open which in the absence of the “Dominie,” we would all have willingly perished by
thepeine forte et dure. In other angles were two other similar boxes, far less reverenced, indeed, but still greatly matters of
awe. One of these was the pulpit of the “classical” usher, one of the “English and mathematical.” Interspersed
about the room, crossing and recrossing in endless irregularity, were innumerable benches and desks, black, ancient, and time-worn,
piled desperately with much-bethumbed books, and so beseamed with initial letters, names at full length, grotesque figures, and other
multiplied efforts of the knife, as to have entirely lost what little of original form might [page 421:] have been their portion in days long departed. A huge bucket with water stood at one extremity of the
room, and a clock of stupendous dimensions at the other.
Encompassed by the massy walls of this venerable academy, I passed, yet not in tedium or disgust, the years of the
third lustrum of my life. The teeming brain of childhood requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it; and the
apparently dismal monotony of a school was replete with more intense excitement than my riper youth has derived from luxury, or my full
manhood from crime. Yet I must believe that my first mental development had in it much of the uncommon — even much of the
outre. Upon mankind at large the events of very early existence rarely leave in mature age any definite impression. All is gray
shadow — a weak and irregular remembrance — an indistinct regathering of feeble pleasures and phantasmagoric pains. With me
this is not so. In childhood I must have felt with the energy of a man what I now find stamped upon memory in lines as vivid, as deep,
and as durable as the exergues of the Carthaginian medals.
Yet in fact — in the fact of the world’s view — how little was there to remember! The morning’s
awakening, the nightly summons to bed; the connings, the recitations; the periodical half-holidays, and perambulations; the play-ground,
with its broils, its pastimes, its intrigues; — these, by a mental sorcery long forgotten, were made to involve a wilderness of
sensation, a world of rich incident, an universe of varied emotion, of excitement the most passionate and spirit-stirring. “Oh,
le bon temps, que ce siecle de fer!”
In truth, the ardor, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among
my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself; — over all with
a single exception. This exception was found in the person of a scholar, who, although no relation, bore the same Christian and surname
as myself; — a circumstance, in fact, little remarkable; for, notwithstanding a noble descent, mine was one of those everyday
appellations which seem, by prescriptive right, to have been, time out of mind, the common property of the mob. In this narrative [page 422:] I have therefore designated myself as William Wilson, — a fictitious
title not very dissimilar to the real. My namesake alone, of those who in school-phraseology constituted “our set,” presumed
to compete with me in the studies of the class — in the sports and broils of the play-ground — to refuse implicit belief in
my assertions, and submission to my will — indeed, to interfere with my arbitrary dictation in any respect whatsoever. If there is
on earth a supreme and unqualified despotism, it is the despotism of a master-mind in boyhood over the less energetic spirits of its
Wilson’s rebellion was to me a source of the greatest embarrassment; the more so as, in spite of the bravado with
which in public I made a point of treating him and his pretensions, I secretly felt that I feared him, and could not help thinking the
equality which he maintained so easily with myself, a proof of his true superiority; since not to be overcome cost me a perpetual
struggle. Yet this superiority — even this equality — was in truth acknowledged by no one but myself; our associates, by
some unaccountable blindness, seemed not even to suspect it. Indeed, his competition, his resistance, and especially his impertinent and
dogged interference with my purposes, were not more pointed than private. He appeared to be destitute alike of the ambition which urged,
and of the passionate energy of mind which enabled me to excel. In his rivalry he might have been supposed actuated solely by a
whimsical desire to thwart, astonish, or mortify myself; although there were times when I could not help observing, with a feeling made
up of wonder, abasement, and pique, that he mingled with his injuries, his insults, or his contradictions, a certain most inappropriate,
and assuredly most unwelcome affectionateness of manner. I could only conceive this singular behavior to arise from a consummate
self-conceit assuming the vulgar airs of patronage and protection.
Perhaps it was this latter trait in Wilson’s conduct, conjoined with our identity of name, and the mere accident
of our having entered the school upon the same day, which set afloat the notion that we were brothers, among the senior classes in the
academy. These do not usually inquire with much strictness into the affairs of their juniors. I have before said, or should have said,
that [page 423:] Wilson was not, in the most remote degree, connected with my
family. But assuredly if we had been brothers we must have been twins; for, after leaving Dr. Bransby’s, I casually learned
that my namesake was born on the nineteenth of January, 1813 — and this is a somewhat remarkable coincidence; for the day is
precisely that of my own nativity.
It may seem strange that in spite of the continual anxiety occasioned me by the rivalry of Wilson, and his intolerable
spirit of contradiction, I could not bring myself to hate him altogether. We had, to be sure, nearly every day a quarrel in which,
yielding me publicly the palm of victory, he, in some manner, contrived to make me feel that it was he who had deserved it; yet a sense
of pride on my part, and a veritable dignity on his own, kept us always upon what are called “speaking terms,” while there
were many points of strong congeniality in our tempers, operating to awake in me a sentiment which our position alone, perhaps,
prevented from ripening into friendship. It is difficult, indeed, to define, or even to describe, my real feelings towards him. They
formed a motley and heterogeneous admixture; — some petulant animosity, which was not yet hatred, some esteem, more respect, much
fear, with a world of uneasy curiosity. To the moralist it will be unnecessary to say, in addition, that Wilson and myself were the most
inseparable of companions.
It was no doubt the anomalous state of affairs existing between us, which turned all my attacks upon him, (and they
were many, either open or covert) into the channel of banter or practical joke (giving pain while assuming the aspect of mere fun)
rather than into a more serious and determined hostility. But my endeavours on this head were by no means uniformly successful, even
when my plans were the most wittily concocted; for my namesake had much about him, in character, of that unassuming and quiet austerity
which, while enjoying the poignancy of its own jokes, has no heel of Achilles in itself, and absolutely refuses to be laughed at. I
could find, indeed, but one vulnerable point, and that, lying in a personal peculiarity, arising, perhaps, from constitutional disease,
would have been spared by any antagonist less at his wit’s end than myself; — my rival had a weakness in the faucial or
guttural organs, which precluded him from raising his voice at any [page 424:] time
above a very low whisper. Of this defect I did not fall to take what poor advantage lay in my power.
Wilson’s retaliations in kind were many; and there was one form of his practical wit that disturbed me beyond
measure. How his sagacity first discovered at all that so petty a thing would vex me, is a question I never could solve; but, having
discovered, he habitually practised the annoyance. I had always felt aversion to my uncourtly patronymic, and its very common, if not
plebeian prænomen. The words were venom in my ears; and when, upon the day of my arrival, a second William Wilson came also to the
academy, I felt angry with him for bearing the name, and doubly disgusted with the name because a stranger bore it, who would be the
cause of its twofold repetition, who would be constantly in my presence, and whose concerns, in the ordinary routine of the school
business, must inevitably, on account of the detestable coincidence, be often confounded with my own.
The feeling of vexation thus engendered grew stronger with every circumstance tending to show resemblance, moral or
physical, between my rival and myself. I had not then discovered the remarkable fact that we were of the same age; but I saw that we
were of the same height, and I perceived that we were even singularly alike in general contour of person and outline of feature. I was
galled, too, by the rumor touching a relationship, which had grown current in the upper forms. In a word, nothing could more seriously
disturb me, (although I scrupulously concealed such disturbance,) than any allusion to a similarity of mind, person, or condition
existing between us. But, in truth, I had no reason to believe that (with the exception of the matter of relationship, and in the case
of Wilson himself,) this similarity had ever been made a subject of comment, or even observed at all by our schoolfellows. That
he observed it in all its bearings, and as fixedly as I, was apparent; but that he could discover in such circumstances so
fruitful a field of annoyance, can only be attributed, as I said before, to his more than ordinary penetration.
His cue, which was to perfect an imitation of myself, lay both in words and in actions; and most admirably did he play
his part. My dress it was an easy matter to copy; my gait and general manner were, without difficulty, appropriated; in spite of his
constitutional [page 425:] defect, even my voice did not escape him. My louder
tones were, of course, unattempted, but then the key, it was identical; and his singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my
How greatly this most exquisite portraiture harassed me, (for it could not justly be termed a caricature,) I will not
now venture to describe. I had but one consolation — in the fact that the imitation, apparently, was noticed by myself alone, and
that I had to endure only the knowing and strangely sarcastic smiles of my namesake himself. Satisfied with having produced in my bosom
the intended effect, he seemed to chuckle in secret over the sting he had inflicted, and was characteristically disregardful of the
public applause which the success of his witty endeavours might have so easily elicited. That the school, indeed, did not feel his
design, perceive its accomplishment, and participate in his sneer, was, for many anxious months, a riddle I could not resolve. Perhaps
the gradation of his copy rendered it not so readily perceptible; or, more possibly, I owed my security to the masterly air of
the copyist, who, disdaining the letter, (which in a painting is all the obtuse can see,) gave but the full spirit of his original for
my individual contemplation and chagrin.
I have already more than once spoken of the disgusting air of patronage which he assumed toward me, and of his frequent
officious interference with my will. This interference often took the ungracious character of advice; advice not openly given, but
hinted or insinuated. I received it with a repugnance which gained strength as I grew in years. Yet, at this distant day, let me do him
the simple justice to acknowledge that I can recall no occasion when the suggestions of my rival were on the side of those errors or
follies so usual to his immature age and seeming inexperience; that his moral sense, at least, if not his general talents and worldly
wisdom, was far keener than my own; and that I might, to-day, have been a better, and thus a happier man, had I less frequently rejected
the counsels embodied in those meaning whispers which I then but too cordially hated and too bitterly despised.
As it was, I at length grew restive in the extreme under his distasteful supervision, and daily resented more and more
openly what I considered his intolerable arrogance. I have said that, in the first years of our connexion as schoolmates, my feelings in
regard to [page 426:] him might have been easily ripened into friendship: but, in
the latter months of my residence at the academy, although the intrusion of his ordinary manner had, beyond doubt, in some measure,
abated, my sentiments, in nearly similar proportion, partook very much of positive hatred. Upon one occasion he saw this, I think, and
afterwards avoided, or made a show of avoiding me.
It was about the same period, if I remember aright, that, in an altercation of violence with him, in which he was more
than usually thrown off his guard, and spoke and acted with an openness of demeanor rather foreign to his nature, I discovered, or
fancied I discovered, in his accent, his air, and general appearance, a something which first startled, and then deeply interested me,
by bringing to mind dim visions of my earliest infancy — wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was
yet unborn. I cannot better describe the sensation which oppressed me than by saying that I could with difficulty shake off the belief
of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some epoch very long ago — some point of the past even
infinitely remote. The delusion, however, faded rapidly as it came; and I mention it at all but to define the day of the last
conversation I there held with my singular namesake.
The huge old house, with its countless subdivisions, had several large chambers communicating with each other, where
slept the greater number of the students. There were, however, (as must necessarily happen in a building so awkwardly planned,) many
little nooks or recesses, the odds and ends of the structure; and these the economic ingenuity of Dr. Bransby had also fitted up as
dormitories; although, being the merest closets, they were capable of accommodating but a single individual. One of these small
apartments was occupied by Wilson.
One night, about the close of my fifth year at the school, and immediately after the altercation just mentioned,
finding every one wrapped in sleep, I arose from bed, and, lamp in hand, stole through a wilderness of narrow passages from my own
bedroom to that of my rival. I had long been plotting one of those ill-natured pieces of practical wit at his expense in which I had
hitherto been so uniformly unsuccessful. It was my intention, now, to put my scheme in operation, and I resolved to make him [page 427:] feel the whole extent of the malice with which I was imbued. Having reached
his closet, I noiselessly entered, leaving the lamp, with a shade over it, on the outside. I advanced a step, and listened to the sound
of his tranquil breathing. Assured of his being asleep, I returned, took the light, and with it again approached the bed. Close curtains
were around it, which, in the prosecution of my plan, I slowly and quietly withdrew, when the bright rays fell vividly upon the sleeper,
and my eyes, at the same moment, upon his countenance. I looked; — and a numbness, an iciness of feeling instantly pervaded my
frame. My breast heaved, my knees tottered, my whole spirit became possessed with an objectless yet intolerable horror. Gasping for
breath, I lowered the lamp in still nearer proximity to the face. Were these — these the lineaments of William Wilson? I
saw, indeed, that they were his, but I shook as if with a fit of the ague in fancying they were not. What was there about them to
confound me in this manner? I gazed; — while my brain reeled with a multitude of incoherent thoughts. Not thus he appeared —
assuredly not thus — in the vivacity of his waking hours. The same name! the same contour of person! the same day of
arrival at the academy! And then his dogged and meaningless imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner! Was it, in truth,
within the bounds of human possibility, that what I now saw was the result, merely, of the habitual practice of this sarcastic
imitation? Awe-stricken, and with a creeping shudder, I extinguished the lamp, passed silently from the chamber, and left, at once, the
halls of that old academy, never to enter them again.
After a lapse of some months, spent at home in mere idleness, I found myself a student at Eton. The brief interval had
been sufficient to enfeeble my remembrance of the events at Dr. Bransby’s, or at least to effect a material change in the nature
of the feelings with which I remembered them. The truth — the tragedy — of the drama was no more. I could now find room to
doubt the evidence of my senses; and seldom called up the subject at all but with wonder at the extent of human credulity, and a smile
at the vivid force of the imagination which I hereditarily possessed. Neither was this species of skepticism likely to be diminished by
the character of the life I led at Eton. The vortex of thoughtless [page 428:]
folly into which I there so immediately and so recklessly plunged, washed away all but the froth of my past hours, ingulfed at once
every solid or serious impression, and left to memory only the veriest levities of a former existence.
I do not wish, however, to trace the course of my miserable profligacy here — a profligacy which set at defiance
the laws, while it eluded the vigilance of the institution. Three years of folly, passed without profit, had but given me rooted habits
of vice, and added, in a somewhat unusual degree, to my bodily stature, when, after a week of soulless dissipation, I invited a small
party of the most dissolute students to a secret carousal in my chambers. We met at a late hour of the night; for our debaucheries were
to be faithfully protracted until morning. The wine flowed freely, and there were not wanting other and perhaps more dangerous
seductions; so that the gray dawn had already faintly appeared in the east, while our delirious extravagance was at its height. Madly
flushed with cards and intoxication, I was in the act of insisting upon a toast of more than wonted profanity, when my attention was
suddenly diverted by the violent, although partial unclosing of the door of the apartment, and by the eager voice of a servant from
without. He said that some person, apparently in great haste, demanded to speak with me in the hall.
Wildly excited with wine, the unexpected interruption rather delighted than surprised me. I staggered forward at once,
and a few steps brought me to the vestibule of the building. In this low and small room there hung no lamp; and now no light at all was
admitted, save that of the exceedingly feeble dawn which made its way through the semi-circular window. As I put my foot over the
threshold, I became aware of the figure of a youth about my own height, and habited in a white kerseymere morning frock, cut in the
novel fashion of the one I myself wore at the moment. This the faint light enabled me to perceive; but the features of his face I could
not distinguish. Upon my entering, he strode hurriedly up to me, and, seizing me by. the arm with a gesture of petulant impatience,
whispered the words “William Wilson!” in my ear.
I grew perfectly sober in an instant.
There was that in the manner of the stranger, and in the tremulous [page 429:] shake of his uplifted finger, as he held it between my eyes and the light, which filled me with
unqualified amazement; but it was not this which had so violently moved me. It was the pregnancy of solemn admonition in the singular,
low, hissing utterance; and, above all, it was the character, the tone, the key, of those few, simple, and familiar, yet
whispered syllables, which came with a thousand thronging memories of bygone days, and struck upon my soul with the shock of a
galvanic battery. Ere I could recover the use of my senses he was gone.
Although this event failed not of a vivid effect upon my disordered imagination, yet was it evanescent as vivid. For
some weeks, indeed, I busied myself in earnest inquiry, or was wrapped in a cloud of morbid speculation. I did not pretend to disguise
from my perception the identity of the singular individual who thus perseveringly interfered with my affairs, and harassed me with his
insinuated counsel. But who and what was this Wilson? — and whence came he? — and what were his purposes? Upon neither of
these points could I be satisfied — merely ascertaining, in regard to him, that a sudden accident in his family had caused his
removal from Dr. Bransby’s academy on the afternoon of the day in which I myself had eloped. But in a brief period I ceased to
think upon the subject, my attention being all absorbed in a contemplated departure for Oxford. Thither I soon went; the uncalculating
vanity of my parents furnishing me with an outfit and annual establishment, which would enable me to indulge at will in the luxury
already so dear to my heart — to vie in profuseness of expenditure with the haughtiest heirs of the wealthiest earldoms in Great
Excited by such appliances to vice, my constitutional temperament broke forth with redoubled ardor, and I spurned even
the common restraints of decency in the mad infatuation of my revels. But it were absurd to pause in the detail of my extravagance. Let
it suffice, that among spendthrifts I out-Heroded Herod, and that, giving name to a multitude of novel follies, I added no brief
appendix to the long catalogue of vices then usual in the most dissolute university of Europe.
It could hardly be credited, however, that I had, even here, so utterly fallen from the gentlemanly estate, as to seek
acquaintance [page 430:] with the vilest arts of the gambler by profession, and,
having become an adept in his despicable science, to practise it habitually as a means of increasing my already enormous income at the
expense of the weak-minded among my fellow-collegians. Such, nevertheless, was the fact. And the very enormity of this offence against
all manly and honorable sentiment proved, beyond doubt, the main if not the sole reason of the impunity with which it was committed.
Who, indeed, among my most abandoned associates, would not rather have disputed the clearest evidence of his senses, than have suspected
of such courses, the gay, the frank, the generous William Wilson — the noblest and most liberal commoner at Oxford — him
whose follies (said his parasites) were but the follies of youth and unbridled fancy — whose errors but inimitable whim —
whose darkest vice but a careless and dashing extravagance?
I had been now two years successfully busied in this way, when there came to the university a young parvenu
nobleman, Glendinning — rich, said report, as Herodes Atticus — his riches, too, as easily acquired. I soon found him of
weak intellect, and, of course, marked him as a fitting subject for my skill. I frequently engaged him in play, and contrived, with the
gambler’s usual art, to let him win considerable sums, the more effectually to entangle him in my snares. At length, my schemes
being ripe, I met him (with the full intention that this meeting should be final and decisive) at the chambers of a fellow-commoner,
(Mr. Preston,) equally intimate with both, but who, to do him justice, entertained not even a remote suspicion of my design. To give to
this a better coloring, I had contrived to have assembled a party of some eight or ten, and was solicitously careful that the
introduction of cards should appear accidental, and originate in the proposal of my contemplated dupe himself. To be brief upon a vile
topic, none of the low finesse was omitted, so customary upon similar occasions that it is a just matter for wonder how any are still
found so besotted as to fall its victim.
We had protracted our sitting far into the night, and I had at length effected the manœuvre of getting
Glendinning as my sole antagonist. The game, too, was my favorite ecarte. The rest of the company, interested in the extent of
our play, had abandoned their own cards, and were standing around us as spectators. The [page 431:]
parvenu, who had been induced by my artifices in the early part of the evening, to drink deeply, now shuffled, dealt, or played,
with a wild nervousness of manner for which his intoxication, I thought, might partially, but could not altogether account. In a very
short period he had become my debtor to a large amount, when, having taken a long draught of port, he did precisely what I had been
coolly anticipating — he proposed to double our already extravagant stakes. With a well-feigned show of reluctance, and not until
after my repeated refusal had seduced him into some angry words which gave a color of pique to my compliance, did I finally
comply. The result, of course, did but prove how entirely the prey was in my toils; in less than an hour he had quadrupled his debt. For
some time his countenance had been losing the florid tinge lent it by the wine; but now, to my astonishment, I perceived that it had
grown to a pallor truly fearful. I say, to my astonishment. Glendinning had been represented to my eager inquiries as immeasurably
wealthy; and the sums which he had as yet lost, although in themselves vast, could not, I supposed, very seriously annoy, much less so
violently affect him. That he was overcome by the wine just swallowed, was the idea which most readily presented itself; and, rather
with a view to the preservation of my own character in the eyes of my associates, than from any less interested motive, I was about to
insist, peremptorily, upon a discontinuance of the play, when some expressions at my elbow from among the company, and an ejaculation
evincing utter despair on the part of Glendinning, gave me to understand that I had effected his total ruin under circumstances which,
rendering him an object for the pity of all, should have protected him from the ill offices even of a fiend.
What now might have been my conduct it is difficult to say. The pitiable condition of my dupe had thrown an air of
embarrassed gloom over all; and, for some moments, a profound silence was maintained, during which I could not help feeling my cheeks
tingle with the many burning glances of scorn or reproach cast upon me by the less abandoned of the party. I will even own that an
intolerable weight of anxiety was for a brief instant lifted from my bosom by the sudden and extraordinary interruption which ensued.
The wide, heavy folding doors of the apartment were all at once [page 432:] thrown
open, to their full extent, with a vigorous and rushing impetuosity that extinguished, as if by magic, every candle in the room. Their
light, in dying, enabled us just to perceive that a stranger had entered, about my own height, and closely muffled in a cloak. The
darkness, however, was now total; and we could only feel that he was standing in our midst. Before any one of us could recover
from the extreme astonishment into which this rudeness had thrown all, we heard the voice of the intruder.
“Gentlemen,” he said, in a low, distinct, and never-to-be-forgotten whisper which thrilled to the
very marrow of my bones, “Gentlemen, I make no apology for this behaviour, because in thus behaving, I am but fulfilling a duty.
You are, beyond doubt, uninformed of the true character of the person who has to-night won at ecarte a large sum of money from
Lord Glendinning. I will therefore put you upon an expeditious and decisive plan of obtaining this very necessary information. Please to
examine, at your leisure, the inner linings of the cuff of his left sleeve, and the several little packages which may be found in the
somewhat capacious pockets of his embroidered morning wrapper.”
While he spoke, so profound was the stillness that one might have heard a pin drop upon the floor. In ceasing, he
departed at once, and as abruptly as he had entered. Can I — shall I describe my sensations? Must I say that I felt all the
horrors of the damned? Most assuredly I had little time given for reflection. Many hands roughly seized me upon the spot, and lights
were immediately re-procured. A search ensued. In the lining of my sleeve were found all the court cards essential inecarte, and,
in the pockets of my wrapper, a number of packs, fac-similes of those used at our sittings, with the single exception that mine were of
the species called, technically, arrondees; the honors being slightly convex at the ends, the lower cards slightly convex at the
sides. In this disposition, the dupe who cuts, as customary, at the length of the pack, will invariably find that he cuts his antagonist
an honor; while the gambler, cutting at the breadth, will, as certainly, cut nothing for his victim which may count in the records of
Any burst of indignation upon this discovery would have affected me less than the silent contempt, or the sarcastic
composure, with which it was received. [page 433:]
“Mr. Wilson,” said our host, stooping to remove from beneath his feet an exceedingly luxurious cloak of
rare furs, “Mr. Wilson, this is your property.” (The weather was cold; and, upon quitting my own room, I had thrown a cloak
over my dressing wrapper, putting it off upon reaching the scene of play.) “I presume it is supererogatory to seek here (eyeing
the folds of the garment with a bitter smile) for any farther evidence of your skill. Indeed, we have had enough. You will see the
necessity, I hope, of quitting Oxford — at all events, of quitting instantly my chambers.”
Abased, humbled to the dust as I then was, it is probable that I should have resented this galling language by
immediate personal violence, had not my whole attention been at the moment arrested by a fact of the most startling character. The cloak
which I had worn was of a rare description of fur; how rare, how extravagantly costly, I shall not venture to say. Its fashion, too, was
of my own fantastic invention; for I was fastidious to an absurd degree of coxcombry, in matters of this frivolous nature. When,
therefore, Mr. Preston reached me that which he had picked up upon the floor, and near the folding-doors of the apartment, it was with
an astonishment nearly bordering upon terror, that I perceived my own already hanging on my arm, (where I had no doubt unwittingly
placed it,) and that the one presented me was but its exact counterpart in every, in even the minutest possible particular. The singular
being who had so disastrously exposed me, had been muffled, I remembered, in a cloak; and none had been worn at all by any of the
members of our party with the exception of myself. Retaining some presence of mind, I took the one offered me by Preston; placed it,
unnoticed, over my own; left the apartment with a resolute scowl of defiance; and, next morning ere dawn of day, commenced a hurried
journey from Oxford to the continent, in a perfect agony of horror and of shame.
I fled in vain. My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation, and proved, indeed, that the exercise of its mysterious dominion
had as yet only begun. Scarcely had I set foot in Paris ere I had fresh evidence of the detestable interest taken by this Wilson in my
concerns. Years flew, while I experienced no relief. Villain! — at Rome, with how untimely, yet with how spectral an
officiousness, stepped he in between me and my ambition! At [page 434:] Vienna, too
— at Berlin — and at Moscow! Where, in truth, had I not bitter cause to curse him within my heart? From his
inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee, panic-stricken, as from a pestilence; and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain.
And again, and again, in secret communion with my own spirit, would I demand the questions “Who is he? —
whence came he? — and what are his objects?” But no answer was there found. And now I scrutinized, with a minute scrutiny,
the forms, and the methods, and the leading traits of his impertinent supervision. But even here there was very little upon which to
base a conjecture. It was noticeable, indeed, that, in no one of the multiplied instances in which he had of late crossed my path, had
he so crossed it except to frustrate those schemes, or to disturb those actions, which, if fully carried out, might have resulted in
bitter mischief. Poor justification this, in truth, for an authority so imperiously assumed! Poor indemnity for natural rights of
self-agency so pertinaciously, so insultingly denied!
I had also been forced to notice that my tormentor, for a very long period of time, (while scrupulously and with
miraculous dexterity maintaining his whim of an identity of apparel with myself,) had so contrived it, in the execution of his varied
interference with my will, that I saw not, at any moment, the features of his face. Be Wilson what he might, this, at least, was
but the veriest of affectation, or of folly. Could he, for an instant, have supposed that, in my admonisher at Eton — in the
destroyer of my honor at Oxford, — in him who thwarted my ambition at Rome, my revenge at Paris, my passionate love at Naples, or
what he falsely termed my avarice in Egypt, — that in this, my arch-enemy and evil genius, could fail to recognise the William
Wilson of my school-boy days, — the namesake, the companion, the rival, — the hated and dreaded rival at Dr.
Bransby’s? Impossible! — But let me hasten to the last eventful scene of the drama.
Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination. The sentiment of deep awe with which I habitually
regarded the elevated character, the majestic wisdom, the apparent omnipresence and omnipotence of Wilson, added to a feeling of even
terror, with which certain other traits in his nature and assumptions inspired me, had operated, hitherto, to impress me with an [page 435:] idea of my own utter weakness and helplessness, and to suggest an implicit,
although bitterly reluctant submission to his arbitrary will. But, of late days, I had given myself up entirely to wine; and its
maddening influence upon my hereditary temper rendered me more and more impatient of control. I began to murmur, — to hesitate,
— to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor
underwent a proportional diminution? Be this as it may, I now began to feel the inspiration of a burning hope, and at length nurtured in
my secret thoughts a stern and desperate resolution that I would submit no longer to be enslaved.
It was at Rome, during the Carnival of 18 —, that I attended a masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke
Di Broglio. I had indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table; and now the suffocating atmosphere of the crowded
rooms irritated me beyond endurance. The difficulty, too, of forcing my way through the mazes of the company contributed not a little to
the ruffling of my temper; for I was anxiously seeking, (let me not say with what unworthy motive) the young, the gay, the beautiful
wife of the aged and doting Di Broglio. With a too unscrupulous confidence she had previously communicated to me the secret of the
costume in which she would be habited, and now, having caught a glimpse of her person, I was hurrying to make my way into her presence.
At this moment I felt a light hand placed upon my shoulder, and that ever-remembered, low, damnable whisper within my ear.
In an absolute frenzy of wrath, I turned at once upon him who had thus interrupted me, and seized him violently by the
collar. He was attired, as I had expected, in a costume altogether similar to my own; wearing a Spanish cloak of blue velvet, begirt
about the waist with a crimson belt sustaining a rapier. A mask of black silk entirely covered his face.
“Scoundrel!” I said, in a voice husky with rage, while every syllable I uttered seemed as new fuel to my
fury; “scoundrel! impostor! accursed villain! you shall not — you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I stab
you where you stand!” — and I broke my way from the ball-room into a small ante-chamber adjoining — dragging him
unresistingly with me as I went. [page 436:]
Upon entering, I thrust him furiously from me. He staggered against the wall, while I closed the door with an oath, and
commanded him to draw. He hesitated but for an instant; then, with a slight sigh, drew in silence, and put himself upon his defence.
The contest was brief indeed. I was frantic with every species of wild excitement, and felt within my single arm the
energy and power of a multitude. In a few seconds I forced him by sheer strength against the wainscoting, and thus, getting him at
mercy, plunged my sword, with brute ferocity, repeatedly through and through his bosom.
At that instant some person tried the latch of the door. I hastened to prevent an intrusion, and then immediately
returned to my dying antagonist. But what human language can adequately portray that astonishment, that horror which
possessed me at the spectacle then presented to view? The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce,
apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, — so at first it seemed
to me in my confusion — now stood where none had been perceptible before; and, as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine
own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble and tottering gait.
Thus it appeared, I say, but was not. It was my antagonist — it was Wilson, who then stood before me in the
agonies of his dissolution. His mask and cloak lay, where he had thrown them, upon the floor. Not a thread in all his raiment —
not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of his face which was not, even in the most absolute identity, mine own!
It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he
“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the World, to Heaven
and to Hope! In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered