‘The Two Brothers’ is the title of one of the shorthand dictation exercises in the notebooks of Dickens’s shorthand pupil, Arthur Stone, at the Free Library of Philadelphia. This composition has tantalised us for some time now: in autumn 2021 the Dickens Decoders created a partial transcript of page one, which was improved by a ‘fill in the gaps’ challenge in early 2022.
The first part of the story immediately signals its debt to the ghost story tradition, opening with the line ‘I once heard a story’ from ‘the mouth of a deceased judge’, told by ‘the dying light of a wood fire with a high wind roaring outside’.
Subsequently, the storyteller relates a tale about ‘two old bachelor brothers’ based in Slough and London. The Slough brother is taken ill during a visit to the London brother and returns home, stating that he will return soon. A few nights later, the London brother witnesses ‘an appearance of his brother, dressed in white, pale’, who makes ‘no answer’ to his questions.
So far so spine-tingling! But things have got really interesting since we set part II of this story for our May #SolveItDickens challenge. Once again, the Dickens Decoders have done a tremendous job, producing the first complete transcription of a page and discovering 35 new symbols in the process! We’ve credited these achievements on the ‘Roll of Honour’ and want to thank everyone who took part. You can download a transcript by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.
Now, for the first time in more than 160 years, we’re able to read this tale, which goes on to relate the arrival of a messenger who tells the London brother that his sibling is at the point of death. The London brother arrives just in time to hear the Slough brother’s last words:
‘John, you have seen me before tonight and you know it!’– ‘The Two Brothers’
‘You have seen me before tonight’ provides a powerful narrative climax, making sense of the Slough brother’s earlier mute ‘appearance’ and ironically fulfilling his promise to ‘come back’, albeit in a different form. However, it turns out that it is not just this ghost that has been ‘seen […] before’. Eagle-eyed solvers Amy D and Elizabeth Agnew were the first to notice that this story bears a very strong resemblance to one of the ghost stories that Dickens included in ‘To Be Read at Dusk’, published in The Keepsake in 1852.
The contours of these stories are identical. In both tales a dying man appears to his brother as an apparition, with this supernatural sighting confirmed by the dying brother’s last words: ‘you have seen me before tonight’.
The main differences are that the 1852 version is longer, has a different frame story, and includes more detail and dialogue. In the 1852 version, the storyteller – a German courier called Wilhelm – is directly involved in the action as the servant of Mr James (the London brother). In the 1859 version, the narrator is repeating a tale that he has heard from someone else. Intriguingly, in ‘The Two Brothers’, only the surviving brother is named as ‘John’ (the name of the brother who dies in ‘Dusk’).
This discovery shows us how cracking the code is just the start. Even when we know what these shorthand texts say, there are still further mysteries to solve – starting with how Dickens taught Stone shorthand. In contrast to ‘Sydney Smith’, ‘The Two Brothers’ isn’t a word-for-word copy of the story from ‘Dusk’. Indeed, the shared punchline, but lack of specifics (and crucially the name detail), suggests that Dickens might be recalling this story from memory or simplifying the tale to make it more accessible for a shorthand learner. The legal language of the 1859 frame story (‘judge’, ‘counsel’, ‘ward’) would have been particularly handy for someone training as a court reporter too.
So, as we begin to transcribe the story under the heading ‘Anecdote’, the two big questions we must continue to ask ourselves are: ‘Is there a written source out there somewhere?’ and ‘Is Dickens reading or improvising or a little bit of both?’
Download the line-by-line transcription below
The same file is provided in .docx and .pdf format for your convenience.
Two missing symbols in ‘The Two Brothers’ part I
We now have a c.98% transcript for the complete ‘Two Brothers’ exercise. Just two symbols remain undeciphered. You can add your suggestions using the comments function below.