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Wilson's Border Tales
Presence of Mind


The following instance of that enviable peculiarity of mind alluded to in the title of this little sketch, will be appreciated by the reader, although he, with ourselves, will think it matter of regret that the occasion on which it was exhibited had not been more worthy.

One day, early in the beginning of the present century, a person, having a very gentlemanly appearance and address, arrived at the King’s Arms, Glasgow, by the London mail. He was a stranger, and apparently an Englishman. His name—at least the name he gave himself—was Edgecomb.

The stranger took up his quarters at the inn above named, and there remained for several weeks, puzzling the waiters sadly to conjecture who or what he could be; for he did no business; seemed to have no acquaintance in the town; and no apparent object or aim in making it a place of sojournment. He, however, paid his way handsomely, was quiet and gentlemanly in his manners, and regular in his habits— circumstances which went far to reconcile the good people of the King’s Arms—master, mistress, and servants—to their unknown guest, notwithstanding the mystery in which his history, and the purpose of his visit, was involved.

The manners of the stranger, as already remarked, were quiet and composed; but there was an expression of determination, of cool, calm resolution in his countenance, that gave assurance of his being a man of strong mind and unshrinking nerve.

The sequel will show that he was so. Mr Edgecomb, as we shall call him, seeing that he so called himself, had been about or nearly a month a guest in the King’s Arms, when two men called one night, shortly after dark, and desired to see the landlord.

They were ushered into a private room, where was the person they desired to see.

"Have you an English gentleman lodging in the house just now?" said one of the men.

"We have," replied the landlord of the King’s Arms.

"Has he been here for some time?" inquired the former.

"For about a month, I think," said the latter.

"A tall man?" said the first speaker, looking on a piece of paper which he held in his hand.

"Yes."

"Dark hair, and large black whiskers."

"Yes. I think so."

"Light gray eyes?"

Yes."

"Roman nose?"

"Yes; exactly."

"Gentlemanly appearance and manner?"

"Both!" replied the landlord of the King’s Arms.

"Our man, Bob," said the first speaker, winking to his companion.

"Have you any notion who this person is, whence he came, or what he is doing here?" continued the former, addressing the landlord.

"Know nothing about him," replied the latter; "only that he pays his way and conducts himself in all respects like a gentleman."

"Is he one though, think you?" said the former, with an equivocal smile.

"Can’t say," replied the landlord. "Take every man to be a gentleman who conducts himself like one."

"Not a bad rule, but, like every other, it has exceptions," said the spokesman of the two visitors, "and this is one."

"Now, sir," he continued, "you don’t know who this man is. We’ll tell you; and expect that you will aid us, if need be, in the discharge of our duty. He is a notorious swindler and forger, on whom the police of every city in the kingdom have long had their eye, but have hitherto been unable to convict in any one of the numerous charges brought against him, so dexterously and cautiously does he manage his proceedings. We think we have him now, however, in a case of forgery. The bill is now lying in the council chambers, and we have come here with a warrant to apprehend him. We’ll thank you, then, to show us the gentleman’s apartment."

The men, who were criminal officers, were shown, though with no great alacrity, the room occupied by Mr Edgecomb. They entered it, and found that person sitting before the fire reading a newspaper, with a decanter of wine on the table beside him.

Without moving a muscle, or exhibiting the slightest discomposure, although he must have guessed the purpose of his unceremonious visitors, Edgecomb awaited their approach, looking steadily at them as they advanced.

One of the men came up to him, and, touching him on the shoulder, said, "You are my prisoner, sir."

"Indeed," said Edgecomb, coolly—nay, smiling, and without rising from his seat, or betraying the smallest emotion. "Pray, sir, for what?"

"On a charge of forgery, sir," replied the officer. "Here is my warrant; and you’ll oblige me by coming along with us."

"Forgery, ha!" exclaimed Edgecomb, with a contemptuous smile. "What sort of forgery is this I am charged with, my man, eh? On whom am I said to have forged?" he added, with the air of a man who, conscious of innocence, sports with both his accusers and their accusation.

"The fiscal will tell you all about that," replied the officer. "In the meantime, you will come along with us, if you please."

"Oh, certainly; by all means," said Edgecomb. "I’ll accompany you wherever you choose. Forgery, ha! a good jest truly. But no matter, we’ll see the end of this odd affair. Take a glass of wine, gentlemen?" he said, seizing the decanter, filling up a glass, and pushing it towards the officers.

One of them took it up and drunk it off. Edgecomb filled up another, and presented it to his companion, who, nothing loth, did by it as his neighbour had done.

Their entertainer now poured out another glass to himself, and drinking to the healths of his visitors, tossed it off.

"Come, gentlemen." he now said, looking at the decanter which was about a third full, "we may as well finish it. There’s not much in it, and I don’t like my wine to get flat, which this might probably do before I got back. Sit down then a moment, if you please, gentlemen."

The sitting down the officers declined; but the proposal to finish the bottle they readily closed with.

On the latter being emptied, and not before, Edgecomb rose from his seat, and, after coolly adjusting himself before the looking-glass over the mantelpiece, intimated his readiness to attend the officers. The party—the latter and their prisoner—left the apartment, and were about to quit the house, when they met the landlord.

"Extraordinary affair this," exclaimed Edgecomb, addressing the latter smilingly. "Charge of forgery!—ha! ha! Odd affair, indeed. I don’t understand it. However, we shall see what it means by and by. In the meantime, keep my apartment for me, if you please—for this matter must, of course, be speedily put to rights—when I shall return to you."

Confounded, after what he had heard, by the unconcerned manner of his guest, the landlord could only bow a reply. Edgecomb smiled, and nodded in return, and, accompanied by his escort, quitted the house.

During all this time the conduct of Edgecomb had been so guarded, his manner so composed and so entirely free from anything like conscious guilt—and he had, moreover, met the charge against him with such calm indifference--that the officers themselves began to fear there was some mistake in the matter: either that they had taken the wrong man, or that the charge against him was unfounded. They, however, proceeded with their prisoner to the jail, where they secured him for the night.

On the following morning, Edgecomb was conducted into the presence of the procurator-fiscal, whose chambers were within the jail buildings.

The case having taken wind, and having excited considerable interest, on account of the gentlemanly appearance and manner of the accused, the apartment of the public functionary, before whom he was now brought, was crowded with the professional acquaintance of the latter, curious to witness the progress, and learn the result of the prisoner’s precognition.

On entering the apartment, and finding it filled with respectable people, Edgecomb raised his hat politely and bowed with an easy graceful air to those around him.

His manner and elegant exterior—for he was an uncommonly fine-looking man, and dressed in the extremity of the fashion, although in perfect good taste--made a strong impression in his favour—so strong, that several of those present acknowledged his courtesy by raising their hats also. Even the fiscal himself shared in the same sentiment, as was evident by the way in which he addressed him.

"Mr Edgecomb," he said, in an unusually civil, if not respectful tone, "here is a charge of forgery against you."

Edgecomb smiled and bowed.

"So I understand, sir," he replied, in his usual calm and gentlemanly way. "Very strange affair, indeed. Pray, sir, what sort of forgery is it I am accused of? Is it a bill, bond, draft, or what is it, pray?"

"Why, sir, it’s a bill," said the fiscal, stretching out his hand, and taking from the top of his desk a slip of paper. "A bill, sir, for £250, professing to be drawn upon and accepted by Messrs Broomley, Kennilworth, & Broomley. Discounted in the Royal Bank."

"So, so," said Edgecomb. "Ha! very good, indeed. A bill for £250 accepted by—whom do you call the people, again?"

"Broomley, Kennilworth, & Broomley," repeated the fiscal.

"Ah, just so. Pray favour me with a sight of this extraordinary document, if you please?"

Thrown off his guard by the polite and easy manner of the accused, and the apparently undesigning way in which the request was made, the fiscal, simply enough, handed Edgecomb, who was standing on the outside of a small railing by which the desk was enclosed, the bill.

On getting possession of the fatal paper, the latter, without saying a word, walked up deliberately to a blazing fire that was immediately behind him, threw the bill on it, and with the heel of his boot, thrust it into the heart of the burning coals, where it was, of course, instantly consumed.

On accomplishing this feat, which, though done with the utmost composure, was yet too quickly performed for any one present to interfere, Edgecomb turned round to the fiscal, and, making him a low and polite bow, said—"That, sir, will save both you and I a vast deal of trouble. I wish you, sir, and you gentlemen, a very good morning." Saying which, he again bowed, and, with the most entire self-possession and deliberation, walked out of the office; there being, as he well knew, now that the bill was destroyed, no ground for his further detention.

We need scarcely add that the case was one of life and death; for, seeing the severity with which the law was in those days executed, Edgecomb would, beyond all manner of doubt, have been hanged, had he not, by this prompt and bold proceeding, succeeded in destroying the evidence of his guilt.


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