One of Twins by Ambrose Bierce
A Letter found among the Papers of the late
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 acquaintance
with the same natural laws. You may know some that I do not, and what is to me unaccountable
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 instance
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 afterward,
in the very act of tattooing us with small distinguishing
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 otherwise
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 wondered
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 sacrificed
to pay his debts. My sisters returned to relatives
in the East, but owing to your kindness John
and I, then twenty-two years of age, obtained employment
in San Francisco, in different quarters of
the town. Circumstances did not permit us to live
together, and we saw each other infrequently, sometimes
not oftener than once a week. As we had few
acquaintances in common, the fact of our extraordinary
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 middle
age, who after greeting me cordially said: 'Stevens,
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 notion,
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 afterward
I'll stand in with a few games of billiards.'
This was said with so bright a smile and so engaging
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 impersonation.
'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 please.'
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
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 beautiful
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 astonishment,
I recognized the heroine of that discreditable
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 fascination
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
John and I passed the evening at the house, enduring,
with the fortitude of long experience, such delicate
enough banter as our likeness naturally suggested.
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
'Was she very like me?' she asked, with an indifference
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
'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
'Miss Margovan,' I said, doubtless with something
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 freedom.'
She shook her head, sadly and hopelessly, and I
continued, with agitation:
'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 conflicting
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
'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 oppressed
with a horrible presentiment of evil--a presentiment
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 uncomfortable.
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 substituting
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 having
occurred ages ago and to another person. Suddenly,
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 outside
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 performance
of some familiar act, I looked at my watch;
it marked half-past eleven. Again I heard that awful
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 recollection
of the intermediate time--I found myself hurrying
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 physicians
and laid my hand upon his forehead he unclosed
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 consideration
all your own, you have asked for less assistance
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 clothing
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 liberty
--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.