One of twins

Ambrose Bierce

10 Mar, 2014 12:40 AM

A Letter found among the Papers of the late Mortimer Barr

YOU ask me if in my experience as one of a pair of twins I ever observed
anything unaccountable by the natural laws with which we have
acquaintance. As to that you shall judge; perhaps we have not all ac-
quaintance with the same natural laws. You may know some that I do not,
and what is to me unac- countable may be very clear to you.
You knew my brother John--that is, you knew him when you knew that I
was not present; but neither you nor, I believe, any human being could
distinguish between him and me if we chose to seem alike. Our parents
could not; ours is the only in- stance of which I have any knowledge of
so close resemblance as that. I speak of my brother John, but I am not
at all sure that his name was not Henry and mine John. We were regularly
christened, but after- ward, in the very act of tattooing us with small
dis- tinguishing marks, the operator lost his reckoning; and although I
bear upon my forearm a small 'H' and he bore a 'J,' it is by no means
certain that the letters ought not to have been transposed. During our
boyhood our parents tried to distinguish us more obviously by our
clothing and other simple devices, but we would so frequently exchange
suits and other- wise circumvent the enemy that they abandoned all such
ineffectual attempts, and during all the years that we lived together at
home everybody recognized the difficulty of the situation and made the
best of it by calling us both 'Jehnry.' I have often won- dered at my
father's forbearance in not branding us conspicuously upon our unworthy
brows, but as we were tolerably good boys and used our power of
embarrassment and annoyance with commendable moderation, we escaped the
iron. My father was, in fact, a singularly good-natured man, and I think
quietly enjoyed Nature's practical joke.
Soon after we had come to California, and settled at San Jose (where
the only good fortune that awaited us was our meeting with so kind a
friend as you), the family, as you know, was broken up by the death of
both my parents in the same week. My father died insolvent, and the
homestead was sacri- ficed to pay his debts. My sisters returned to
rela- tives in the East, but owing to your kindness John and I, then
twenty-two years of age, obtained em- ployment in San Francisco, in
different quarters of the town. Circumstances did not permit us to live
together, and we saw each other infrequently, some- times not oftener
than once a week. As we had few acquaintances in common, the fact of our
extraor- dinary likeness was little known. I come now to the matter of
your inquiry.
One day soon after we had come to this city I was walking down
Market Street late in the afternoon, when I was accosted by a
well-dressed man of mid- dle age, who after greeting me cordially said:
'Ste- vens, I know, of course, that you do not go out much, but I have
told my wife about you, and she would be glad to see you at the house. I
have a no- tion, too, that my girls are worth knowing. Suppose you come
out to-morrow at six and dine with us, en famille; and then if the
ladies can't amuse you after- ward I'll stand in with a few games of
This was said with so bright a smile and so en- gaging a manner that
I had not the heart to refuse, and although I had never seen the man in
my life I promptly replied: 'You are very good, sir, and it will give me
great pleasure to accept the invitation. Please present my compliments
to Mrs. Margovan and ask her to expect me.'
With a shake of the hand and a pleasant parting word the man passed
on. That he had mistaken me for my brother was plain enough. That was an
error to which I was accustomed and which it was not my habit to rectify
unless the matter seemed important. But how had I known that this man's
name was Margovan? It certainly is not a name that one would apply to a
man at random, with a probability that it would be right. In point of
fact, the name was as strange to me as the man.
The next morning I hastened to where my brother was employed and met
him coming out of the office with a number of bills that he was to
collect. I told him how I had 'committed' him and added that if he
didn't care to keep the engagement I should be delighted to continue the
'That's queer,' he said thoughtfully. 'Margovan is the only man in
the office here whom I know well and like. When he came in this morning
and we had passed the usual greetings some singular impulse prompted me
to say: "Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Margovan, but I neglected to ask
your address." I got the address, but what under the sun I was to do
with it, I did not know until now. It's good of you to offer to take the
consequence of your impudence, but I'll eat that dinner myself, if you
He ate a number of dinners at the same place-- more than were good
for him, I may add without disparaging their quality; for he fell in
love with Miss Margovan, proposed marriage to her and was heartlessly
Several weeks after I had been informed of the engagement, but
before it had been convenient for me to make the acquaintance of the
young woman and her family, I met one day on Kearney Street a handsome
but somewhat dissipated-looking man whom something prompted me to follow
and watch, which I did without any scruple whatever. He turned up Geary
Street and followed it until he came to Union Square. There he looked at
his watch, then entered the square. He loitered about the paths for some
time, evidently waiting for some one. Presently he was joined by a
fashionably dressed and beauti- ful young woman and the two walked away
up Stockton Street, I following. I now felt the necessity of extreme
caution, for although the girl was a stranger it seemed to me that she
would recognize me at a glance. They made several turns from one street
to another and finally, after both had taken a hasty look all
about--which I narrowly evaded by stepping into a doorway--they entered
a house of which I do not care to state the location. Its location was
better than its character.
I protest that my action in playing the spy upon these two strangers
was without assignable motive. It was one of which I might or might not
be ashamed, according to my estimate of the character of the person
finding it out. As an essential part of a narrative educed by your
question it is related here without hesitancy or shame.
A week later John took me to the house of his prospective
father-in-law, and in Miss Margovan, as you have already surmised, but
to my profound as- tonishment, I recognized the heroine of that discred-
itable adventure. A gloriously beautiful heroine of a discreditable
adventure I must in justice admit that she was; but that fact has only
this importance: her beauty was such a surprise to me that it cast a
doubt upon her identity with the young woman I had seen before; how
could the marvellous fascina- tion of her face have failed to strike me
at that time? But no--there was no possibility of error; the difference
was due to costume, light and general surroundings.
John and I passed the evening at the house, endur- ing, with the
fortitude of long experience, such deli- cate enough banter as our
likeness naturally sug- gested. When the young lady and I were left
alone for a few minutes I looked her squarely in the face and said with
sudden gravity:
'You, too, Miss Margovan, have a double: I saw her last Tuesday
afternoon in Union Square.'
She trained her great grey eyes upon me for a moment, but her glance
was a trifle less steady than my own and she withdrew it, fixing it on
the tip of her shoe.
'Was she very like me?' she asked, with an in- difference which I
thought a little overdone.
'So like,' said I, 'that I greatly admired her, and being unwilling
to lose sight of her I confess that I followed her until--Miss Margovan,
are you sure that you understand?'
She was now pale, but entirely calm. She again raised her eyes to
mine, with a look that did not falter.
'What do you wish me to do?' she asked. 'You need not fear to name
your terms. I accept them.'
It was plain, even in the brief time given me for reflection, that
in dealing with this girl ordinary methods would not do, and ordinary
exactions were needless.
'Miss Margovan,' I said, doubtless with some- thing of the
compassion in my voice that I had in my heart,' it is impossible not to
think you the victim of some horrible compulsion. Rather than impose new
embarrassments upon you I would prefer to aid you to regain your
She shook her head, sadly and hopelessly, and I continued, with
'Your beauty unnerves me. I am disarmed by your frankness and your
distress. If you are free to act upon conscience you will, I believe, do
what you conceive to be best; if you are not--well, Heaven help us all!
You have nothing to fear from me but such opposition to this marriage as
I can try to justify on--on other grounds.'
These were not my exact words, but that was the sense of them, as
nearly as my sudden and conflict- ing emotions permitted me to express
it. I rose and left her without another look at her, met the others as
they re-entered the room and said, as calmly as I could: 'I have been
bidding Miss Margovan good evening; it is later than I thought.'
John decided to go with me. In the street he asked if I had observed
anything singular in Julia's manner.
'I thought her ill,' I replied; 'that is why I left.' Nothing more
was said.
The next evening I came late to my lodgings. The events of the
previous evening had made me nervous and ill; I had tried to cure myself
and attain to clear thinking by walking in the open air, but I was op-
pressed with a horrible presentiment of evil--a pre- sentiment which I
could not formulate. It was a chill, foggy night; my clothing and hair
were damp and I shook with cold. In my dressing-gown and slippers before
a blazing grate of coals I was even more un- comfortable. I no longer
shivered but shuddered-- there is a difference. The dread of some
impending calamity was so strong and dispiriting that I tried to drive
it away by inviting a real sorrow--tried to dispel the conception of a
terrible future by substi- tuting the memory of a painful past. I
recalled the death of my parents and endeavoured to fix my mind upon the
last sad scenes at their bedsides and their graves. It all seemed vague
and unreal, as hav- ing occurred ages ago and to another person. Sud-
denly, striking through my thought and parting it as a tense cord is
parted by the stroke of steel--I can think of no other comparison--I
heard a sharp cry as of one in mortal agony! The voice was that of my
brother and seemed to come from the street out- side my window. I sprang
to the window and threw it open. A street lamp directly opposite threw a
wan and ghastly light upon the wet pavement and the fronts of the
houses. A single policeman, with upturned collar, was leaning against a
gatepost, quietly smoking a cigar. No one else was in sight. I closed
the window and pulled down the shade, seated myself before the fire and
tried to fix my mind upon my surroundings. By way of assisting, by per-
formance of some familiar act, I looked at my watch; it marked half-past
eleven. Again I heard that aw- ful cry! It seemed in the room--at my
side. I was frightened and for some moments had not the power to move. A
few minutes later--I have no recollec- tion of the intermediate time--I
found myself hur- rying along an unfamiliar street as fast as I could
walk. I did not know where I was, nor whither I was going, but presently
sprang up the steps of a house before which were two or three carriages
and in which were moving lights and a subdued confusion of voices. It
was the house of Mr. Margovan.
You know, good friend, what had occurred there. In one chamber lay
Julia Margovan, hours dead by poison; in another John Stevens, bleeding
from a pistol wound in the chest, inflicted by his own hand. As I burst
into the room; pushed aside the phy- sicians and laid my hand upon his
forehead he un- closed his eyes, stared blankly, closed them slowly and
died without a sign.
I knew no more until six weeks afterwards, when I had been nursed
back to life by your own saintly wife in your own beautiful home. All of
that you know, but what you do not know is this--which, however, has no
bearing upon the subject of your psychological researches--at least not
upon that branch of them in which, with a delicacy and consid- eration
all your own, you have asked for less as- sistance than I think I have
given you:
One moonlight night several years afterward I was passing through
Union Square. The hour was late and the square deserted. Certain
memories of the past naturally came into my mind as I came to the spot
where I had once witnessed that fateful assignation, and with that
unaccountable perversity which prompts us to dwell upon thoughts of the
most painful character I seated myself upon one of the benches to
indulge them. A man entered the square and came along the walk toward
me. His hands were clasped behind him, his head was bowed; he seemed to
observe nothing. As he approached the shadow in which I sat I recognized
him as the man whom I had seen meet Julia Margovan years before at that
spot. But he was terribly altered--grey, worn and haggard. Dissipation
and vice were in evidence in every look; illness was no less apparent.
His cloth- ing was in disorder, his hair fell across his forehead in a
derangement which was at once uncanny, and picturesque. He looked fitter
for restraint than lib- erty--the restraint of a hospital.
With no defined purpose I rose and confronted him. He raised his
head and looked me full in the face. I have no words to describe the
ghastly change that came over his own; it was a look of unspeakable
terror--he thought himself eye to eye with a ghost. But he was a
courageous man. 'Damn you, John Stevens!' he cried, and lifting his
trembling arm he dashed his fist feebly at my face and fell headlong
upon the gravel as I walked away.
Somebody found him there, stone-dead. Nothing more is known of him,
not even his name. To know of a man that he is dead should be enough.

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