Just as the Earl of Warrington and Diana Arlington, his mistress, are rejoicing of the news that their friend Eliza Sydney (whom we met on the novel’s first page as Walter) has married the Duke of Castelcicala, Reynolds returns to one of the major scandals of early Victorian England when the Earl notices something odd about the letter that communicated the good news.
“But, ah!” exclaimed the earl, who was carelessly turning the letter of the Grand Duchess over and over in his hands as he spoke, “this is very singular--very remarkable;” --and he inspected the seal and post-marks of the letter with minute attention.
"What is the matter?" inquired Diana. "Some treachery has been perpetrated here," answered the earl, still continuing his scrutiny: "this letter had been opened before it was delivered to you."
"Opened!" cried Diana.
"Yes," said the Earl of Warrington; "here is every proof that the letter has been violated. See--there is the English post-mark of _yesterday morning”: and over it has been stamped another mark, of this morning's date. Then contemplate the seal. There are two kinds of wax, the one melted over the other: do you not notice a shade different in their colours?"
At last the machinations of the Black Chamber have become known to a member of the public! Reynolds had already used its secret opening, reading, and resealing personal mail as a major part of the novel’s plot and its radical criticism of a class system, economics, and government riddled with injustice of the most hideous kinds. This secret intrusive arm of government, as we learn earlier in the story, not only uncovered Stephens' plot that sent the now-Grand Duchess to prison but also filed away for future reference the contents of letters that exposed correspondence between diplomats representing other countries. the perilous state of a famous London bank, and the pregnancy of the unmarried daughter of a noble family.
The reader first encounters this secret branch of government in chapter 29, which begins:
In a small, high, well-lighted room five individuals were seated at a large round oaken table. One of these persons, who appeared to be the superior, was an elderly man with a high forehead, and thin white hair falling over the collar of his black coat. He was short and rather corpulent: his countenance denoted frankness and good-nature; but his eyes, which were small, grey, and sparkling, had a lurking expression of cunning, only perceptible to the acute observer. The other three individuals were young and gentlemanly-looking men, neatly dressed, and very deferential in their manners towards their superior.
The door of this room was carefully bolted. At one end of the table was a large black tray covered with an immense quantity of bread-seals of all sizes. Perhaps the reader may recall to mind that, amongst the pursuits and amusements of his school-days, he diverted himself with moistening the crumb of bread, and kneading it with his fingers into a consistency capable of taking and retaining an accurate impression of a seal upon a letter. The seals--or rather blank bread-stamps--now upon the tray, were of this kind, only more carefully manufactured, and well consolidated with thick gum-water.
Close by this tray, in a large wooden bowl were wafers of all sizes and colours; and in a box also standing on the table, were numbers of wafer-stamps of every dimension used. A second box contained thin blades of steel, set fast in delicate ivory handles, and sharp as razors. A third box was filled with sticks of sealing-wax of all colours, and of foreign as well as British manufacture. A small glass retort fixed over a spirit-lamp, was placed near one of the young men. A tin-box containing a little cushion covered with printer's red ink in one compartment, and several stamps such as the reader may have seen used in post-offices, in another division, lay open near the other articles mentioned. Lastly, an immense pile of letters--some sealed, and others wafered--stood upon that end of the table at which the elderly gentleman was seated.
The occupations of these five individuals may be thus described in a few words. The old gentleman took up the letters one by one, and bent them open, as it were, in such a way, that he could read a portion of their contents when they were not folded in such a manner as effectually to conceal all the writing. He also examined the addresses, and consulted a long paper of official character which lay upon the table at his right hand. Some of the letters he threw, after as careful a scrutiny as he could devote to them without actually breaking the seals or wafers, into a large wicker basket at his feet. From time to time, however, he passed a letter to the young man who sate nearest to him.
If the letters were closed with wax, an impression of the seal was immediately taken by means of one of the bread stamps. The young man then took the letter and held it near the large fire which burnt in the grate until the sealing-wax became so softened by the heat that the letter could be easily opened without tearing the paper. The third clerk read it aloud, while the fourth took notes of its contents. It was then returned to the first young man, who re-sealed it by means of the impression taken on the bread stamp, and with wax which precisely matched that originally used in closing the letter. When this ceremony was performed, the letter was consigned to the same basket which contained those that had passed unopened through the hands of the Examiner.
If the letter were fastened with a wafer, the second clerk made the water in the little glass retort boil by means of the spirit-lamp; and when the vapour gushed forth from the tube, the young man held the letter to its mouth in such a way that the steam played full upon the identical spot where the wafer was placed. The wafer thus became moistened in a slight degree; and it was only then necessary to pass one of the thin steel blades skilfully beneath the wafer, in order to open the letter. The third young man then read this epistle, and the fourth took notes, as in the former instance. The contents being thus ascertained, the letter was easily fastened again with a very thin wafer of the same colour and size as the original; and if the job were at all clumsily done, the tin-box before noticed furnished the means of imprinting a red stamp upon the back of the letter, in such a way that a portion of the circle fell precisely over the spot beneath which the wafer was placed.
These processes were accomplished in total silence, save when the contents of the letters were read; and then, so accustomed were those five individuals to hear the revelations of the most strange secrets and singular communications, that they seldom appeared surprised or amused--shocked or horrified, at anything which those letters made known to them. Their task seemed purely of a mechanical kind: indeed, automatons could not have shewn less passion or excitement.
Oh! vile--despicable occupation,--performed, too, by men who went forth, with heads erect and confident demeanour, from their atrocious employment--after having violated those secrets which are deemed most sacred, and broken the seals which merchants lovers, parents, relations, and friends, had placed upon their thoughts!
Base and diabolical outrage--perpetrated by the commands of the Ministers of the Sovereign!
Reader, this small, high, well-lighted room, in which such infamous scenes took place with doors well secured by bolts and bars, was the _Black Chamber of the General Post-Office, Saint Martin's-le-Grand_.
And now, reader, do you ask whether all this be true;--whether, in the very heart of the metropolis of the civilized world, such a system and such a den of infamy can exist;--whether, in a word, the means of transferring thought at a cheap and rapid rate, be really made available to the purposes of government and the ends of party policy? If you ask these questions, to each and all we confidently and boldly answer "YES." ===
The Examiner--for the reader has doubtless already recognised him to be the same individual whom we introduced in the twenty-ninth chapter of our narrative--glanced complacently around him; and a smile of triumph curled his thin pale lips. At the same time his small, grey, sparkling eyes were lighted up with an expression of diabolical cunning: his whole countenance was animated with a glow of pride and conscious power; and no one would have supposed that this was the same old man who meekly and quietly ascended the steps of the Post-Office a few minutes ago.
Bad deeds, if not the results of bad passions and feelings, soon engender them. This was the case with the Examiner. He was the agent of the Government in the perpetration of deeds which disgraced his white hair and his venerable years;--he held his appointment, not from the Postmaster-General, but direct from the Lords of the Treasury themselves;--he filled a situation of extreme responsibility and trust;--he knew his influence--he was well aware that he controlled an engine of fearful power--and he gloated over the secrets that had been revealed to him in the course of his avocation, and which he treasured up in his bosom.
[very twentieth-century recognition] He had risen from nothing; and yet his influence with the Government was immense. His friends, who believed him to be nothing more than a senior clerk in the Post-Office, were surprised at the great interest which he evidently possessed, and which was demonstrated by the handsome manner in which all his relatives were provided for. But the old man kept his secret. The four clerks who served in his department under him, were all tried and trustworthy young men; and their fidelity was moreover secured by good salaries. Thus every precaution was adopted to render the proceedings of the Black Chamber as secret as possible;--and, at the time of which we are writing, the uses to which that room was appropriated were even unknown to the greater number of the persons employed in the General Post-Office. The Examiner . . . was compelled to open any letters upon a warrant issued and directed to him by the Secretaries of State for the Home and Foreign Departments, and for the Colonies, as well as in obedience to the Treasury. Thus did he superintend an immense system of _espionnage_, which was extended to every class of society, and had its ramifications through every department of the state.
Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.
Last modified 29 July 2016