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Second Paper On Murder
by [?]

DOCTOR NORTH: You are a liberal man: liberal in the true classical sense, not in the slang sense of modern politicians and education-mongers. Being so, I am sure that you will sympathize with my case. I am an ill-used man, Dr. North–particularly ill used; and, with your permission, I will briefly explain how. A black scene of calumny will be laid open; but you, Doctor, will make all things square again. One frown from you, directed to the proper quarter, or a warning shake of the crutch, will set me right in public opinion, which at present, I am sorry to say, is rather hostile to me and mine–all owing to the wicked arts of slanderers. But you shall hear.

A good many years ago you may remember that I came forward in the character of a dilettante in murder. Perhaps dilettante may be too strong a word. Connoisseur is better suited to the scruples and infirmity of public taste. I suppose there is no harm in that at least. A man is not bound to put his eyes, ears, and understanding into his breeches pocket when he meets with a murder. If he is not in a downright comatose state, I suppose he must see that one murder is better or worse than another in point of good taste. Murders have their little differences and shades of merit as well as statues, pictures, oratorios, cameos, intaglios, or what not. You may be angry with the man for talking too much, or too publicly, (as to the too much, that I deny–a man can never cultivate his taste too highly;) but you must allow him to think, at any rate; and you, Doctor, you think, I am sure, both deeply and correctly on the subject. Well, would you believe it? all my neighbors came to hear of that little aesthetic essay which you had published; and, unfortunately, hearing at the very same time of a club that I as connected with, and a dinner at which I presided–both tending to the same little object as the essay, viz., the diffusion of a just taste among her majesty’s subjects, they got up the most barbarous calumnies against me. In particular, they said that I, or that the club, which comes to the same thing, had offered bounties on well conducted homicides–with a scale of drawbacks, in case of any one defect or flaw, according to a table issued to private friends. Now, Doctor, I’ll tell you the whole truth about the dinner and the club, and you’ll see how malicious the world is. But first let me tell you, confidentially, what my real principles are upon the matters in question.

As to murder, I never committed one in my life. It’s a well known thing amongst all my friends. I can get a paper to certify as much, signed by lots of people. Indeed, if you come to that, I doubt whether many people could produce as strong a certificate. Mine would be as big as a table-cloth. There is indeed one member of the club, who pretends to say that he caught me once making too free with his throat on a club night, after every body else had retired. But, observe, he shuffles in his story according to his state of civilation. When not far gone, he contents himself with saying that he caught me ogling his throat; and that I was melancholy for some weeks after, and that my voice sounded in a way expressing, to the nice ear of a connoisseur, the sense of opportunities lost–but the club all know that he’s a disappointed man himself, and that he speaks querulously at times about the fatal neglect of a man’s coming abroad without his tools. Besides, all this is an affair between two amateurs, and every body makes allowances for little asperities and sorenesses in such a case. “But,” say you, “If no murderer, my correspondent may have encouraged, or even have bespoke a murder.” No, upon my honor–nothing of the kind. And that was the very point I wished to argue for your satisfaction. The truth is, I am a very particular man in everything relating to murder; and perhaps I carry my delicacy too far. The Stagyrite most justly, and possibly with a view to my case, placed virtue in the [Greek: to meson] or middle point between two extremes. A golden mean is certainly what every man should aim at. But it is easier talking than doing; and, my infirmity being notoriously too much milkiness of heart, I find it difficult to maintain that steady equatorial line between the two poles of too much murder on the one hand, and too little on the other. I am too soft–Doctor, too soft; and people get excused through me–nay, go through life without an attempt made upon them, that ought not to be excused. I believe if I had the management of things, there would hardly be a murder from year’s end to year’s end. In fact I’m for virtue, and goodness, and all that sort of thing. And two instances I’ll give you to what an extremity I carry my virtue. The first may seem a trifle; but not if you knew my nephew, who was certainly born to be hanged, and would have been so long ago, but for my restraining voice. He is horribly ambitious, and thinks himself a man of cultivated taste in most branches of murder, whereas, in fact, he has not one idea on the subject, but such as he has stolen from me. This is so well known, that the club has twice blackballed him, though every indulgence was shown to him as my relative. People came to me and said–“Now really, President, we would do much to serve a relative of yours. But still, what can be said? You know yourself that he’ll disgrace us. If we were to elect him, why, the next thing we should hear of would be some vile butcherly murder, by way of justifying our choice. And what sort of a concern would it be? You know, as well as we do, that it would be a disgraceful affair, more worthy of the shambles than of an artist’s attelier. He would fall upon some great big man, some huge farmer returning drunk from a fair. There would be plenty of blood, and that he would expect us to take in lieu of taste, finish, scenical grouping. Then, again, how would he tool? Why, most probably with a cleaver and a couple of paving stones: so that the whole coup d’oeil would remind you rather of some hideous ogre or cyclops, than of the delicate operator of the nineteenth century.” The picture was drawn with the hand of truth; that I could not but allow, and, as to personal feelings in the matter, I dismissed them from the first. The next morning I spoke to my nephew–I was delicately situated, as you see, but I determined that no consideration should induce me to flinch from my duty. “John,” said I, “you seem to me to have taken an erroneous view of life and its duties. Pushed on by ambition, you are dreaming rather of what it might be glorious to attempt, than what it would be possible for you to accomplish. Believe me, it is not necessary to a man’s respectability that he should commit a murder. Many a man has passed through life most respectably, without attempting any species of homicide–good, bad, or indifferent. It is your first duty to ask yourself, quid valeant humeri, quid ferre recusent? we cannot all be brilliant men in this life. And it is for your interest to be contented rather with a humble station well filled, than to shock every body with failures, the more conspicuous by contrast with the ostentation of their promises.” John made no answer, he looked very sulky at the moment, and I am in high hopes that I have saved a near relation from making a fool of himself by attempting what is as much beyond his capacity as an epic poem. Others, however, tell me that he is meditating a revenge upon me and the whole club. But let this be as it may, liberavi animam meam; and, as you see, have run some risk with a wish to diminish the amount of homicide. But the other case still more forcibly illustrates my virtue. A man came to me as a candidate for the place of my servant, just then vacant. He had the reputation of having dabbled a little in our art; some said not without merit. What startled me, however, was, that he supposed this art to be part of his regular duties in my service. Now that was a thing I would not allow; so I said at once, “Richard (or James, as the case might be,) you
misunderstand my character. If a man will and must practise this difficult (and allow me to add, dangerous) branch of art–if he has an overruling genius for it, why, he might as well pursue his studies whilst living in my service as in another’s. And also, I may observe, that it can do no harm either to himself or to the subject on whom he operates, that he should be guided by men of more taste than himself. Genius may do much, but long study of the art must always entitle a man to offer advice. So far I will go–general principles I will suggest. But as to any particular case, once for all I will have nothing to do with it. Never tell me of any special work of art you are meditating–I set my face against it in toto. For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta–that’s my rule.” Such was my speech, and I have always acted up to it; so if that is not being virtuous, I should be glad to know what is. But now about the dinner and the club. The club was not particularly of my creation; it arose pretty much as other similar associations, for the propagation of truth and the communication of new ideas, rather from the necessities of things than upon any one man’s suggestion. As to the dinner, if any man more than another could be held responsible for that, it was a member known amongst us by the name of Toad-in-the-hole. He was so called from his gloomy misanthropical disposition, which led him into constant disparagements of all modern murders as vicious abortions, belonging to no authentic school of art. The finest performances of our own age he snarled at cynically; and at length this querulous humor grew upon him so much, and he became so notorious as a laudator tentporis acti, that few people cared to seek his society. This made him still more fierce and truculent. He went about muttering and growling; wherever you met him he was soliloquizing and saying, “despicable pretender–without grouping–without two ideas upon handling–without”–and there you lost him. At length existence seemed to be painful to him; he rarely spoke, he seemed conversing with phantoms in the air, his housekeeper informed us that his reading was nearly confined to God’s Revenge upon Murder, by Reynolds, and a more ancient book of the same title, noticed by Sir Walter Scott in his Fortunes of Nigel. Sometimes, perhaps, he might read in the Newgate Calendar down to the year 1788, but he never looked into a book more recent. In fact, he had a theory with regard to the French Revolution, as having been the great cause of degeneration in murder. “Very soon, sir,” he used to say, “men will have lost the art of killing poultry: the very rudiments of the art will have perished!” In the year 1811 he retired from general society. Toad-in-the-hole was no more seen in any public resort. We missed him from his wonted haunts–nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he. By the side of the main conduit his listless length at noontide he would stretch, and pore upon the filth that muddled by. “Even dogs are not what they were, sir–not what they should be. I remember in my grandfather’s time that some dogs had an idea of murder. I have known a mastiff lie in ambush for a rival, sir, and murder him with pleasing circumstances of good taste. Yes, sir, I knew a tom-cat that was an assassin. But now”–and then, the subject growing too painful, he dashed his hand to his forehead, and went off abruptly in a homeward direction towards his favorite conduit, where he was seen by an amateur in such a state that he thought it dangerous to address him. Soon after he shut himself entirely up; it was understood that he had resigned himself to melancholy; and at length the prevailing notion was, that Toad-in-the-hole had hanged himself.