Most people have a chance to see exciting events in their lives. I am the Chief Manager of an insurance office. I too, have seen exciting things in my thirty years of work.
My office had one wall that was covered in glass. I could see everybody who came into the insurance company. I liked to study the faces of new customers before I spoke to them.
I decided what kind of people they were before they said a word to me. I learned to trust my first impression of people.
The story I want to tell is about a man who came into the company one day. I watched him through the glass in my office. He seemed about forty years old and he was very well dressed. He seemed very polite and he appeared to be quite a gentleman. He was talking to one of the clerks. Despite his appearance, I disliked this man as soon as I saw him.
Suddenly the man noticed that I was looking at him. He smiled at me through the glass. Then he took some papers from the clerk and left.
A few minutes later I called the clerk into my office.
‘Who was that man?’ I asked him.
‘That was Mr Julius Slinkton, sir,’ the clerk told me. ‘He’s from the Middle Temple.’
‘What did he want?’ I enquired.
‘He wanted one of our insurance forms,’ the clerk replied. ‘He said that a friend of yours recommended this company.’
‘He knew my name then, did he?’
‘Oh, yes, Mr Sampson,’ the clerk confirmed. ‘He knew your name.’
About two weeks later I went to have dinner with a friend of mine. One of the other guests was Mr Julius Slinkton. He was standing near the fire. He noticed me and he asked our host to introduce him to me. Our host quickly brought him over. The three of us began to talk.
‘I thought you knew Mr Sampson already,’ our host said.
‘No,’ Mr Slinkton told him. ‘I followed your advice. I went into the insurance office, but I didn’t speak to Mr Sampson. I didn’t want to disturb him.’
‘Did you come to the office to take out an insurance policy?’ I asked Mr Slinkton politely. ‘Was it a life insurance policy?’
‘It’s not a policy for me,’ Mr Slinkton said. ‘It’s for a friend of mine. He asked me to get the information for him. I don’t know whether he will lake out the policy. People often change their minds, don’t you think, Mr Sampson?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
We began to talk about other things.
‘Your profession has suffered a great loss,’ Mr Slinkton said suddenly.
I did not know what he was talking about.
‘A loss?’ I asked in surprise. ‘What kind of loss, sir – a financial one?’
Mr Slinkton laughed.
‘I don’t mean a financial loss,’ he explained. ‘I was referring to Mr Meltham-‘
Now I understood what he was talking about.
‘Ah. yes, Mr Meltham,’ I agreed. ‘That was indeed a sad loss. He was the most brilliant man I have ever known in the insurance profession. But did you know Mr Meltham?’ I asked.
‘I knew his reputation,’ Mr Slinkton told me. ‘What a sad story it is! A young man like that suddenly gives up his business and retires from the world.’
I have said that I disliked Mr Slinkton when I first saw him in the insurance office. I still disliked him. I did not think he was really sad about Mr Meltham at all. I decided to ask Mr Slinkton some questions. I wanted to find out more about this man.
‘Have you heard why Mr Meltham left his business?’ I asked.
‘I have only heard stories about it,’ he said. ‘Apparently
Mr Meltham was unhappy in love.’
‘That’s not the truth,’ I told him. ‘The truth is that the lady died.’
‘She died, did she?’ Mr Slink-ton repeated. ‘That’s terrible – poor Mr Meltham. How very sad for him!’
I still felt that Mr Slinkton was not sincere. There was something false about his expression of sadness.
Then he said to me, ‘You are surprised that Mr Meltham’s story affects me so strongly. I can see that, Mr Sampson, but I, too, have suffered a terrible loss recently. I have two nieces, you see. One of them, a girl of twenty-three, died recently. The other niece is also not well. The world is a very sad place!’ Now I thought I understood Mr Slinkton. He was a sensitive man who had suffered. I was angry with myself for disliking him. I watched him for the rest of the evening and he seemed to be a good man. He talked politely to everybody and everybody seemed to like him. I decided that my first impression of Mr Slinkton was wrong.
I spoke to our host about Mr Slinkton. He told me that he had not known him for very long. He told me that Mr Slinkton had taken his two nieces to Italy for their health. It was there that one of them had died. He had returned to England afterwards with his other niece. Now I felt that I understood Mr Slinkton. I was deeply ashamed of my previous distrust of him.
Two days later I was sitting in my office as usual. I saw Mr Slinkton come into the outer office. As soon as I saw him I disliked him again. Mr Slinkton waved cheerfully at me and came into my office.
‘I have come back,’ he said, ‘because I want to find out what my friend has done with the insurance forms. I want to know whether he has sent them back to the company. His family are worried about him, you see. They want him to buy a good insurance policy.’
‘Perhaps I can help,’ I said. ‘What is your friend’s name, Mr Slinkton?’ I asked him.
‘Beckwith,’ he told me. a man called Beckwith had started an insurance policy with the company. The clerk searched through his files for a moment and then he brought me some papers.
‘Yes, Mr Sampson,’ he said. ‘We received these forms from Mr Beckwith. He wants a policy for two thousand pounds and he has asked Mr Slinkton to write a reference for him.
‘Me!’ cried Mr Slinkton in surprise. He thought for a moment. ‘But of course I can do that for him,’
Mr Slinkton sat down in my office and wrote the reference for Mr Beckwith. He left the forms in my office, said goodbye politely and then left.
Mr Slinkton was not my only visitor that day. Very early that morning someone else had come to see me at my house. The visit was a very private one.
No one knew anything about it at all.
Mr Beckwith’s insurance policy began in March. I did not see Mr Slinkton again for six or seven months. I went to Scarborough in September and I saw Mr Slinkton walking on the beach there. It was early evening and he greeted me warmly.
Mr Slinkton was with a young lady. He introduced me to her, explaining that she was his niece. Her name was Miss Niner.
I looked at her carefully. I was sorry to see that Miss Niner did not look very well at all. As we walked along the sand, Mr Slinkton pointed to some tracks in the sand. He laughed.
‘Your shadow has been here again,’ he joked to Miss Niner.
‘Shadow? What shadow?’ I asked.
‘My uncle is joking, Mr Sampson,’ she explained. ‘There is an elderly gentleman here in Scarborough. He travels around in a hand-carriage. I see him so often that my uncle calls him my shadow.’
As she was speaking we saw the old man’s hand-carriage come into sight. There was a frail old man inside. As the carriage was passing us, he waved his arm at me. He called to me by name. I went to see what he wanted. I was away from Mr Slinkton and Miss Niner for about five minutes.
‘My niece is very curious,’ Mr Slinkton told me when I rejoined them. ‘She wants to know who her shadow is.’
‘His name’s Major Banks,’ I told him. ‘He’s a very rich man, but a very sick one. He’s just been telling me what pleasure you both give him. He says it’s obvious that you are very fond of one another.’
‘It’s true we are very close,’ Mr Slinkton said very seriously. ‘We are alone, you know – since Margaret died.’ Miss Niner looked sad at her uncle’s words. The memory of her sister was clearly still very painful to her. Suddenly she sat down near a rock on the beach. She was pale.
Mr Slinkton walked away from us. He, too, seemed very upset by his memories.
Miss Niner began to tell me about her uncle. She said he was a very good, kind man. She told me that she knew she was going to die soon. She was worried about what would happen to her uncle when she died. I saw the hand-carriage coining back towards us along the sand as she was talking. Suddenly I interrupted her.
‘Miss Niner.’ I said urgently, ‘I have something to tell you. You are in great danger! You must come with me and talk to that man in the hand-carriage. Your life depends on it!’
Miss Niner was very shocked by my words. I walked with her to the hand-carriage before she had time to object.
I did not stay there with her for more than two minutes. Within five minutes I saw her walking up the beach with a grey-haired man. He had a slight limp. I knew that she was safe with that man.
I went back to the rock and sat down. Mr Slinkton came back soon afterwards. He was surprised that his niece had gone. We talked for a few minutes. He told me that Miss Niner was very ill and he looked sad while he told me. I replied politely to everything he said, but I was holding a weapon in my pocket as we walked along together.
‘Mr Sampson, may I ask you something?’ he suddenly enquired. ‘What is the news of that poor man Meltham? Is he dead yet?’
‘No,’ I told him, ‘he’s not dead yet. But he won’t live long, I’m afraid.’
‘What a sad place the world is!’ Mr Slinkton sighed quietly.
It was November before I saw Mr Slinkton again, this time in London. I had a very important appointment at Middle Temple. I arrived at the Temple and went up some stairs. There were two doors at the top of the stairs. The name BECKWITH was painted on one door. The name SLINKTON was painted on the other.
I went in the door marked Beckwith. The room was dirty and there were empty bottles everywhere. A young man got up when I entered. He walked very unsteadily and he seemed drunk.
‘Slinkton’s not in yet,’ he said loudly. ‘I’ll call him.’
He went into the corridor and began to shout loudly.
‘Hey! Julius! Come in here and have a drink!’ he called.
Mr Slinkton came into the room. He was very surprised to see me.
‘Julius, this is Mr Sampson!’ Beckwith introduced us.
‘Boil the brandy, Julius!’ he said.
He gave Mr Slinkton a filthy saucepan. ‘Come on, boil the brandy the way you usually do!’
Mr Slinkton was embarrassed at my presence in the room, I could see.
‘How is your niece, Mr Slinkton?’ I asked him quietly.
‘I am sorry to say my niece has left me,’ he replied. ‘She went away without a word of explanation.’
Beckwith held out the saucepan once more.
‘Boil the brandy, Julius,’ he repeated. ‘Give me what you always give me for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Boil the brandy, I tell you!’
Now Mr Slinkton looked even more embarrassed. This was not a pleasant situation for him. He thought for a moment and then he spoke to me.
‘You’re a man of the world, Mr Sampson,’ he began. ‘I’ll tell you the truth.’
‘No, Mr Slinkton,’ I said firmly. ‘You’ll never tell the truth. I know all about you.’
‘You want to save your insurance company some money,’ he said calmly. ‘You will try to argue that I was responsible for Beckwith’s condition – and for his eventual death. But you won’t be able to prove that, you know. You won’t be able to prove anything!’
Beckwith suddenly picked up his brandy-glass and threw it at Mr Slinkton. The glass cut his forehead and blood began to flow down his face. Mr Slinkton took out his handkerchief and dried his face. As he was doing this, another man came into the room – a man with grey hair who walked with a slight limp. Mr Slinkton looked at this man in surprise.
‘Look very carefully at me,’ Beckwith cried out. ‘You’re a rogue, Slinkton, and I’ve caught you! I took these rooms on purpose, just to catch you. I pretended to be a drunkard in order to catch you and I’ve done it. You’ll never escape now. You see, the last time you went to see Mr Sampson, I had already been to see him myself – I went to his house very early that morning. We know everything. We know what you were planning. You thought you could kill me for the two thousand pounds of the insurance policy, didn’t you? You wanted to kill me with brandy, didn’t you? But you wanted me to die quickly. That’s why you also gave me small amounts of poison.’ Mr Slinkton was surprised by Beckwith’s behaviour. The young man did not seem at all drunk now. At first Mr Slinkton did not know how to react. Then he found his courage. He was very pale, but he looked coldly at Beckwith. He did not say a word.
‘I took these rooms on purpose,’ Beckwith went on. ‘I knew what kind of man you are, you see. You’re the man who’s already killed one innocent girl for her money. And now you’re slowly killing another one.’
‘Think how stupid you really are!’ Beckwith continued. ‘You thought I was drinking brandy all day – but I threw most of it away. You never knew that I came into your room at night when you were asleep. I took all your papers, Slinkton. I read your journal, too. It’s got all the information about the poisons that you use. It explains everything. I know where the journal is now!’
Slinkton looked at Beckwith questioningly.
‘It’s not in your desk,’ Beckwith told him.
‘Then you’re a thief,’ Slinkton told him calmly. He spoke calmly, but his face was white.
‘I’m your niece’s shadow,’ Beckwith said quietly.
Suddenly Slinkton lost his calm and his courage. He looked frightened now. Still he said nothing.
‘I’ve watched you all the time,’ Beckwith said. ‘I knew that you were poisoning Miss Niner. I went to Mr Sampson and told him everything. That man standing at the door is Mr Sampson’s servant. The three of us have saved your niece’s life!’
Beckwith paused for a moment to look at Slinkton. Then he went on.
‘You don’t even know my real name,’ he said very quietly. ‘You asked Mr Sampson several times if he had any news about Meltham. I can give you news about him – I am Meltham!’ he announced triumphantly.
‘I loved your niece Margaret. I could not save her – but I promised to pursue you to the end. And I’ve done it!’ he cried. ‘I’ve hunted you down, Slinkton.’
Slinkton now looked in horror at the man who was accusing him. He was unable to speak for fear.
‘You never knew my real name,’ Meltham told him. ‘You are seeing me under my real name now for the first time. You will see me again when you answer the charge of murder in court. And I hope you see me in your imagination – when they put the rope around your neck and the crowd cries out for your death!’
Slinkton turned quickly away from us for a second and put his hand to his mouth. The room suddenly filled with the smell of some chemical. Slinkton gasped, ran a few steps and fell to the floor. He was dead.
Meltham and I made sure that Slinkton was dead. Then we left the room together.
‘I have done what I promised to do.’ Meltham said sadly to me. ‘My life is ended now.’
I did everything that I could to help him, but the poor man died a few months later.