On Being Found Out by William Makepeace Thackeray.
On Being Found Out
At the close (let us say) of Queen Anne’s reign, when I was a boy at a private and preparatory school for young gentlemen, I remember the wiseacre of a master ordering us all, one night, to march into a little garden at the back of the house, and thence to proceed one by one into a tool or hen house (I was but a tender little thing just put into short clothes, and can’t exactly say whether the house was for tools or hens), and in that house to put our hands into a sack which stood on a bench, a candle burning beside it. I put my hand into the sack. My hand came out quite black. I went and joined the other boys in the schoolroom; and all their hands were black too.
By reason of my tender age (and there are some critics who, I hope, will be satisfied by my acknowledging that I am a hundred and fifty-six next birthday) I could not understand what was the meaning of this night excursion–this candle, this tool house, this bag of soot. I think we little boys were taken out of our sleep to be brought to the ordeal. We came, then, and showed our little hands to the master; washed them or not–most probably, I should say, not–and so went bewildered back to bed.
Something had been stolen in the school that day; and Mr. Wiseacre having read in a book of an ingenious method of finding out a thief by making him put his hand into a sack (which, if guilty, the rogue would shirk from doing), all we boys were subjected to the trial. Goodness knows what the lost object was, or who stole it. We all had black hands to show the master. And the thief, whoever he was, was not Found Out that time.
I wonder if the rascal is alive–an elderly scoundrel he must be by this time; and a hoary old hypocrite, to whom an old schoolfellow presents his kindest regards–parenthetically remarking what a dreadful place that private school was; cold, chilblains, bad dinners, not enough victuals, and caning awful!–Are you alive still, I say, you nameless villain, who escaped discovery on that day of crime? I hope you have escaped often since, old sinner. Ah, what a lucky thing it is, for you and me, my man, that we are NOT found out in all our peccadilloes; and that our backs can slip away from the master and the cane!
Just consider what life would be, if every rogue was found out, and flogged coram populo! What a butchery, what an indecency, what an endless swishing of the rod! Don’t cry out about my misanthropy. My good friend Mealymouth, I will trouble you to tell me, do you go to church? When there, do you say, or do you not, that you are a miserable sinner, and saying so do you believe or disbelieve it? If you are a M. S., don’t you deserve correction, and aren’t you grateful if you are to be let off? I say again what a blessed thing it is that we are not all found out!
Just picture to yourself everybody who does wrong being found out, and punished accordingly. Fancy all the boys in all the school being whipped; and then the assistants, and then the headmaster (Dr. Badford let us call him). Fancy the provost marshal being tied up, having previously superintended the correction of the whole army. After the young gentlemen have had their turn for the faulty exercises, fancy Dr. Lincolnsinn being taken up for certain faults in HIS Essay and Review. After the clergyman has cried his peccavi, suppose we hoist up a bishop, and give him a couple of dozen! (I see my Lord Bishop of Double-Gloucester sitting in a very uneasy posture on his right reverend bench.) After we have cast off the bishop, what are we to say to the Minister who appointed him? My Lord Cinqwarden, it is painful to have to use personal correction to a boy of your age; but really . . . Siste tandem carnifex! The butchery is too horrible. The hand drops powerless, appalled at the quantity of birch which it must cut and brandish. I am glad we are not all found out, I say again; and protest, my dear brethren, against our having our deserts.
To fancy all men found out and punished is bad enough; but imagine all the women found out in the distinguished social circle in which you and I have the honor to move. Is it not a mercy that a many of these fair criminals remain unpunished and undiscovered! There is Mrs. Longbow, who is forever practicing, and who shoots poisoned arrows, too; when you meet her you don’t call her liar, and charge her with the wickedness she has done and is doing. There is Mrs. Painter, who passes for a most respectable woman, and a model in society. There is no use in saying what you really know regarding her and her goings on. There is Diana Hunter–what a little haughty prude it is; and yet WE know stories about her which are not altogether edifying. I say it is best for the sake of the good, that the bad should not all be found out. You don’t want your children to know the history of that lady in the next box, who is so handsome, and whom they admire so. Ah me, what would life be if we were all found out and punished for all our faults? Jack Ketch would be in permanence; and then who would hang Jack Ketch?
They talk of murderers being pretty certainly found out. Psha! I have heard an authority awfully competent vow and declare that scores and hundreds of murders are committed, and nobody is the wiser. That terrible man mentioned one or two ways of committing murder, which he maintained were quite common, and were scarcely ever found out. A man, for instance, comes home to his wife, and . . . but I pause–I know that this Magazine has a very large circulation.* Hundreds and hundreds of thousands–why not say a million of people at once?–well, say a million, read it. And among these countless readers, I might be teaching some monster how to make away with his wife without being found out, some fiend of a woman how to destroy her dear husband. I will NOT then tell this easy and simple way of murder, as communicated to me by a most respectable party in the confidence of private intercourse. Suppose some gentle reader were to try this most simple and easy receipt–it seems to me almost infallible–and come to grief in consequence, and be found out and hanged? Should I ever pardon myself for having been the means of doing injury to a single one of our esteemed subscribers? The prescription whereof I speak–that is to say, whereof I DON’T speak–shall be buried in this bosom. No, I am a humane man. I am not one of your Bluebeards to go and say to my wife, “My dear! I am going away for a few days to Brighton. Here are all the keys of the house. You may open every door and closet, except the one at the end of the oak room opposite the fireplace, with the little bronze Shakespeare on the mantelpiece (or what not).” I don’t say this to a woman–unless, to be sure, I want to get rid of her–because, after such a caution, I know she’ll peep into the closet. I say nothing about the closet at all. I keep the key in my pocket, and a being whom I love, but who, as I know, has many weaknesses, out of harm’s way. You toss up your head, dear angel, drub on the ground with your lovely little feet, on the table with your sweet rosy fingers, and cry, “Oh, sneerer! You don’t know the depth of woman’s feeling, the lofty scorn of all deceit, the entire absence of mean curiosity in the sex, or never, never would you libel us so!” Ah, Delia! dear, dear Delia! It is because I fancy I DO know something about you (not all, mind–no, no; no man knows that).–Ah, my bride, my ringdove, my rose, my poppet–choose, in fact, whatever name you like–bulbul of my grove, fountain of my desert, sunshine of my darkling life, and joy of my dungeoned existence, it is because I DO know a little about you that I conclude to say nothing of that private closet, and keep my key in my pocket. You take away that closet key then, and the house key. You lock Delia in. You keep her out of harm’s way and gadding, and so she never CAN be found out.
* The Cornhill.–editor.
And yet by little strange accidents and coincidents how we are being found out every day. You remember that old story of the Abbe Kakatoes, who told the company at supper one night how the first confession he ever received was–from a murderer, let us say. Presently enters to supper the Marquis de Croquemitaine. “Palsambleu, abbe!” says the brilliant marquis, taking a pinch of snuff, “are you here? Gentlemen and ladies! I was the abbe’s first penitent, and I made him a confession, which I promise you astonished him.”
To be sure how queerly things are found out! Here is an instance. Only the other day I was writing in these Roundabout Papers about a certain man, whom I facetiously called Baggs, and who had abused me to my friends, who of course told me. Shortly after that paper was published another friend–Sacks let us call him–scowls fiercely at me as I am sitting in perfect good humor at the club, and passes on without speaking. A cut. A quarrel. Sacks thinks it is about him that I was writing: whereas, upon my honor and conscience, I never had him once in my mind, and was pointing my moral from quite another man. But don’t you see, by this wrath of the guilty- conscienced Sacks, that he had been abusing me too? He has owned himself guilty, never having been accused. He has winced when nobody thought of hitting him. I did but put the cap out, and madly butting and chafing, behold my friend rushes out to put his head into it! Never mind, Sacks, you are found out; but I bear you no malice, my man.
And yet to be found out, I know from my own experience, must be painful and odious, and cruelly mortifying to the inward vanity. Suppose I am a poltroon, let us say. With fierce mustache, loud talk, plentiful oaths, and an immense stick, I keep up nevertheless a character for courage. I swear fearfully at cabmen and women; brandish my bludgeon, and perhaps knock down a little man or two with it: brag of the images which I break at the shooting gallery, and pass among my friends for a whiskery fire-eater, afraid of neither man nor dragon. Ah me! Suppose some brisk little chap steps up and gives me a caning in St. James’s Street, with all the heads of my friends looking out of all the club windows. My reputation is gone. I frighten no man more. My nose is pulled by whipper-snappers, who jump up on a chair to reach it. I am found out. And in the days of my triumphs, when people were yet afraid of me, and were taken in by my swagger, I always knew that I was a lily liver, and expected that I should be found out some day.
That certainty of being found out must haunt and depress many a bold braggadocio spirit. Let us say it is a clergyman, who can pump copious floods of tears out of his own eyes and those of his audience. He thinks to himself, “I am but a poor swindling, chattering rogue. My bills are unpaid. I have jilted several women whom I have promised to marry. I don’t know whether I believe what I preach, and I know I have stolen the very sermon over which I have been sniveling. Have they found me out?” says he, as his head drops down on the cushion.
Then your writer, poet, historian, novelist, or what not? The Beacon says that “Jones’s work is one of the first order.” The Lamp declares that Jones’s tragedy surpasses every work since the days of Him of Avon.” The Comet asserts that “J’s ‘Life of Goody Twoshoes’ is a [Greek text omitted], a noble and enduring monument to the fame of that admirable Englishwoman,” and so forth. But then Jones knows that he has lent the critic of the Beacon five pounds; that his publisher has a half share in the Lamp; and that the Cornet comes repeatedly to dine with him. It is all very well. Jones is immortal until he is found out; and then down comes the extinguisher, and the immortal is dead and buried. The idea (dies irae!) of discovery must haunt many a man, and make him uneasy, as the trumpets are puffing in his triumph. Brown, who has a higher place than he deserves, cowers before Smith, who has found him out. What is the chorus of critics shouting “Bravo”?–a public clapping hands and flinging garlands? Brown knows that Smith has found him out. Puff, trumpets! Wave, banners! Huzza, boys, for the immortal Brown! This is all very well,” B. thinks (bowing the while, smiling, laying his hand to his heart); “but there stands Smith at the window: HE has measured me; and some day the others will find me out too.” It is a very curious sensation to sit by a man who has found you out, and who, as you know, has found you out; or, vice versa, to sit with a man whom YOU have found out. His talent? Bah! His virtue? We know a little story or two about his virtue, and he knows we know it. We are thinking over friend Robinson’s antecedents, as we grin, bow and talk; and we are both humbugs together. Robinson a good fellow, is he? You know how he behaved to Hicks? A good-natured man, is he? Pray do you remember that little story of Mrs. Robinson’s black eye? How men have to work, to talk, to smile, to go to bed, and try and sleep, with this dread of being found out on their consciences! Bardolph, who has robbed a church, and Nym, who has taken a purse, go to their usual haunts, and smoke their pipes with their companions. Mr. Detective Bullseye appears, and says, “Oh, Bardolph! I want you about that there pyx business!” Mr. Bardolph knocks the ashes out of his pipe, puts out his hands to the little steel cuffs, and walks away quite meekly. He is found out. He must go. “Good-by, ‘Doll Tearsheet! Good-by, Mrs. Quickly, ma’am!” The other gentlemen and ladies de la societe look on and exchange mute adieux with the departing friends. And an assured time will come when the other gentlemen and ladies will be found out too.
What a wonderful and beautiful provision of nature it has been that, for the most part, our womankind are not endowed with the faculty of finding us out! THEY don’t doubt, and probe, and weigh, and take your measure. Lay down this paper, my benevolent friend and reader, go into your drawing-room now, and utter a joke ever so old, and I wager sixpence the ladies there will all begin to laugh. Go to Brown’s house, and tell Mrs. Brown and the young ladies what you think of him, and see what a welcome you will get! In like manner, let him come to your house, and tell YOUR good lady his candid opinion of you, and fancy how she will receive him! Would you have your wife and children know you exactly for what you are, and esteem you precisely at your worth? If so, my friend, you will live in a dreary house, and you will have but a chilly fireside. Do you suppose the people round it don’t see your homely face as under a glamour, and, as it were, with a halo of love round it? You don’t fancy you ARE as you seem to them? No such thing, my man. Put away that monstrous conceit, and be thankful that THEY have not found you out.