MISSING, A MARRIED GENTLEMAN
READERS of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales will remember a very curious speculative essay on the subject of a gentleman who took the strange whim of suddenly absenting himself from his wife and family, and remaining concealed for many years in the neighbourhood of his own home, for the purpose of observing their conduct after his supposed death. It is an old newspaper story, and was found, I believe, by Mr. Hawthorne, in an American Journal. A year or two ago it was also related in a London weekly paper; the scene being then laid in the suburbs of the metropolis: and I remember it a few years back to have met with it in a French paper, wherein the circumstances were stated to be of recent occurrence – the mysterious husband being no other than our old friend the Sieur X, pro hac vice, a draper in the Rue St. Honoré. The various versions are evidently taken from one another; but the original story, from which they differ scarcely in anything, but in names and places, is found in Dr. William King’s “Political and Literary Anecdotes of his own Times.” Dr. King was a well-known scholar and a busy literary man, in the early part of the last century. His anecdotes were discovered by accident, in manuscript, about forty years ago only; but they were well ascertained to be genuine. The story referred to appears to be authentic, and to those who have not yet met with it it may be found an interesting addition to the stories of “Disappearances” in earlier numbers of Household Words.
About the year seventeen hundred and six, I knew one Mr. Howe, a sensible, well-natured man, possessed of an estate of seven or eight hundred pounds per annum. He married a young lady of a good family in the West of England; her maiden name was Mallet; she was agreeable in her person and manners, and proved a very good wife. Seven or eight years after they had been married, he rose one morning very early, and told his wife that he was obliged to go to the Tower to transact some particular business. The same day, at noon, his wife received a note from him, in which he informed her that he was under a necessity of going to Holland, and should probably be absent three weeks or a month… He was absent from her seventeen years, during which time she neither heard from him, or of him. The evening before he returned, whilst she was at supper, and with some of her friends and relations – particularly one Dr. Rose, a physician – who had married her sister, a billet, without any name subscribed, was delivered to her, in which the writer requested the favour of her to give him a meeting in the Bird-cage Walk, in St. James’s Park. When she had read the billet, she tossed it to Dr. Rose, and said, laughing, ‘you see, brother, as old as I am, I have got a gallant!’ Rose, who perused the note with more attention, declared it to be Mr. Howe’s handwriting. This surprised all the company, and so much affected Mrs. Howe that she fainted away. However, she soon recovered, when it was agreed that Dr. Rose and his wife, with the other gentlemen and ladies who were there at supper, should attend Mrs. Howe the next evening to the Bird-cage Walk. They had not been there more than five or six minutes, when Mr. Howe came to them; and, after saluting his friends and embracing his wife, walked home with her, and they lived together in great harmony from that time to the day of his death.
But the most curious part of my tale remains to be related. London is the only place in all Europe where a man can find a secure retreat, or remain, if he pleases, many years unknown. If he pays constantly for his lodging, for his provisions, and for whatsoever else he wants, nobody will ask a question concerning him, or inquire whence he comes, or whither he goes. When Howe left his wife, they lived in a house in Jermyn Street, near St. James Church. He went no further than to a little street in Westminster, where he took a room, for which he paid five or six shillings a-week; and, changing his name, and distinguishing himself by wearing a black wig (for he was a fair man), he remained in this habitation during the whole time of his absence. He had two children by his wife when he separated from her, who were both living at that time; but they both died young, in a few years after. However, during their lives, the second or third year after their father disappeared, Mr. Howe was obliged to apply for an Act of Parliament to procure a proper settlement of her husband’s estate, and a provision for herself out of it during his absence, as it was uncertain whether he was alive or dead. This act he suffered to be solicited and passed, and enjoyed the pleasure of reading the progress of it in the votes, in a little coffee-house near his lodging, which he frequented.
Upon his quitting his house and family, in the manner I have mentioned, Mrs. Howe at first imagined, as she could not conceive any other cause for such an abrupt elopement, that he had contracted a large debt unknown to her, and by that means involved himself in difficulties which he could not easily surmount; and for some days she lived in continual apprehension of demands from creditors, of seizures and executions. But nothing of this kind happened; on the contrary, he did not only leave his estate quite free and unencumbered, but he paid the bills of every tradesman with whom he had any dealings; and, upon examining his papers in due time after he was gone, proper receipts and discharges were found from all persons with whom he had any manner of transactions, or money concerns. Mrs. Howe, after the death of her children, thought proper to lessen the family of servants and the expenses of her housekeeping, and there fore removed herself from her house in Jermyn Street to a little house on Brewer Street, near Golden Square. Just over against her lived on Salt, a corn-chandler. About ten years after his disappearance, Mr. Howe contrived to make acquaintance with Salt; and at length acquired such a degree of intimacy with him, that he usually dined with Salt once or twice a-week. From the room in which they ate, it was not difficult to look into Mrs. Howe’s dining room, where she generally sat and received her company; and Salt (who believed Howe to be a bachelor) frequently recommended his own wife to him as a suitable match. During the last seven years of Howe’s absence, he went every Sunday to St. James’s Church, and used to sit in Mr. Salt’s seat, where he had a view of his wife, but could not easily be seen by her.
After he returned home, he never would confess, even to his most intimate friends, what was the real cause of such a singular conduct. Apparently there was none; but whatever it was, he was certainly ashamed to own it. Dr. Rose has often said to me that he believed his brother Howe would never have returned to his wife, if the money he took with him, which was supposed to have been one or two thousand pounds had not been all spent; and he must have been a good economist, and frugal in his manner of living, otherwise his money would scarcely have held out; for I imagine he had his whole fortune by him (I mean what he carried away with him), in money or bank bills, and daily took out of his bag, like the Spaniard in Gil Blas, what was sufficient for his expenses. Yet I have seen him, after his return, addressing his wife in the language of a bridegroom. And I have been assured by some of his most intimate friends that he treated her, during the rest of their lives, with the greatest kindness and affection.
Dr. King adds in a note that he was well acquainted with Dr. Rose, and also with Salt; that he often met them at King’s Coffee-house, near Golden Square (Dr. King was an active Jacobite and Rose was of French connexions); and that they frequently entertained him with this remarkable story: relating these and many other particulars which had escaped his memory.
Back to Index