This week's sentence is taken from volume II of "The History Of England From The Accession Of James II" by the incomparably entertaining and insightful Thomas Babington Macauley (read his histories and essays together with any written work of a modern-day politician and weep at the decline and fall of intelligence and wit over the past 150 years or so. We are truly Neanderthal in comparison).
The sentence was: "The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out."
The heavy clank of the outer door lock was always louder than he expected, echoing round the cool brown semi-darkness of the lobby. The post boxes here were still mahogany; he liked that. He felt somehow safer or at least more at home in older buildings. As expected the envelope was waiting for him. A4 manila, nothing written on the outside. Incongruous flashback: Mackinson recalled his mother would carefully save old envelopes for re-use, the same way she used to keep and iron flat any salvageable scraps of wrapping paper at Christmas. She would have loved this envelope: unmarked, crisp and pristine, sealed only with red cotton wound around a brass stud on the back.
The elevator was as old as the building but still fairly reliable, yet Mackinson always walked up to his fifth floor apartment. Like his office it was a deliberate throwback to the nineteen-thirties, a look that had cost him most of the considerable sum of money he had earned in his first year working for Bartleby. Art deco was now 'chic' though that was not the reason he chose it; he would be happier when it fell out of fashion again. He pulled down the blinds, preferring the half-light to the harsh morning sun that now cast crisp shadows of window frames onto cream canvas.
The leather chair creaked as he sat. His collar loosened, a large crystal tumbler holding a small amount of good scotch on the desk by his side, he savoured the silence for a moment. It was time.
Unwinding the envelope's cotton fastening, Mackinson opened the flap and extracted a single sheet of cream-laid paper, noting the airline tickets and money still inside. Typewritten. Double-spaced. No signature. He knew there would be no fingerprints, either. At the top the quotation from Macauley:
"The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out."
Allegedly this was engraved in a plaque on the wall behind Bartleby's desk, not so much as a measure of the man's character, but rather the opposite: a reminder that everything - and everybody - in the organisation was deniable. Targeted assassination, extortion, smuggling drugs, arms and people, espionage (sometimes against your own country), and so much more; with Bartleby you could - and would - get away with murder.
For the thousandth time Mackinson measured his own character and for the thousandth time was reassured by the knowledge that he was bound straight for hell. A man of real character would refrain from any and all temptation. Mackinson fell way short. Every time.
He re-read his instructions, then picked up the tumbler and breathed in the malt fumes for a while, not drinking. Starting again from the top, this time he read between the lines.
He selected his 'Berlin' suitcase, checked the guns then burned the sheet of paper in the grate, crumbling the ashes. Retrieving his passport from the desk Mackinson placed the empty envelope carefully in the drawer and left.