Last Reviewed on May 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275
Huck and his party see a young man carrying two big carpet-bags and give him a lift to a nearby steamboat, which is going to New Orleans. As they travel, the young man volunteers a great deal of information about people in the local village, and the Dauphin asks him questions to elicit even more. Much of what the young man has to say concerns the recent death of a man called Peter Wilks. After they have seen the young man onto the steamboat, the Dauphin and the Duke decide to impersonate two brothers of the dead man who have been away from the village for many years. One of the brothers, William, is deaf and dumb, and this part is taken by the Duke. The Dauphin impersonates the other, who is much older and has been living in England. Huck accompanies them as a manservant. When they arrive at the village, the Dauphin inquires after Mr. Wilks and bursts into tears when told he is dead. When this is conveyed to the Duke in sign language, he also indulges in extravagant histrionics, which Huck describes as “enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”
The Duke and the Dauphin are accepted by the three daughters of the dead man as their uncles and start weeping over his coffin. Peter Wilks was a wealthy man and left $3,000 in gold, together with property worth thousands more, to his two brothers, Harvey and William. The gold is in the cellar, and when the Duke and the Dauphin count it, they find that $415 is missing from the $6,000 they were told would be there (half of which is earmarked for the dead man’s daughters). The Duke makes up the deficit with coins from his pocket, to allay any possible suspicions on the part of the dead man’s relations. They take the gold upstairs to count it out in public and give the girls their half. When they have counted out the money, however, the Dauphin tells the girls he wants them to take all of it. However, Dr. Robinson, the physician who treated the dead man, says that he does not believe the Dauphin is Peter Wilks’s brother at all. The three girls all tell him that he is mistaken and that the Duke and the Dauphin have both proved their identities as the dead man’s brothers in many different ways. One of them, Mary Jane, shows her confidence by giving the entire $6,000 in gold to the Dauphin and asking him to invest it for them.
The Dauphin, the Duke, and Huck stay with the three girls at the Wilks house. Huck waits on the Dauphin and the Duke at dinner, while the girls are served by slaves. Huck causes some confusion with his ignorance of England when Josephine, the youngest of the three girls, questions him, and he says that he often sees the king, William IV, at church in Sheffield. Mary Jane, the eldest and most beautiful sister, rebukes her, and Huck feels deeply ashamed that he is allowing the Dauphin and the Duke to steal her gold. He feels twice as bad when Susan, the second sister, also defends him. He therefore decides that he will hide the gold from the Dauphin and the Duke and then send Mary Jane a note telling her where to find it. He takes the gold and puts it in his room until he can find a better hiding place.
At night, Huck hides the gold in the dead man’s coffin. The next day, the undertaker, the preacher, and various townspeople come to hold a memorial service. They bury the dead man, and Huck worries about whether the gold is still in the coffin or if someone might have taken it. That evening, the Dauphin talks of returning to England soon and taking the girls with him. He puts up the property for auction at a sale two days later. The next day, he sells the girls’ house slaves to some passing traders. By this time, the Duke and the Dauphin have noticed that the gold is missing and question Huck about it, but he persuades them that the slaves must have stolen it before they were sold.
On the day of the auction, Huck tells Mary Jane the truth about the Duke and the Dauphin. He asks her to leave the house, as it is clear to him that she would not be able to hide her knowledge of the situation, and tells her sisters that she has gone to visit the Proctor family across the river. The auction is held in the public square, with the Duke and the Dauphin in attendance. While the property is being sold, a steamboat lands, and a crowd comes up from the landing to the sale, crying out that a rival set of heirs to Peter Wilks’s fortune has arrived in town: “you pays your money and you takes your choice!”
This episode in the criminal career of the Duke and the Dauphin is significantly darker and more serious than any of the amusing, picaresque adventures in which they have been involved to date. They enter the story as frauds of a relatively harmless and colorful variety, relieving the credulous of a few dollars here and there, humanized by their vanity and seemingly half-convinced by their own pretensions. In this section of the book, however, their determination to plunder all they can from the three sisters whose father has just died becomes increasingly ugly. Huck remarks on it in disgust several times. It is this rapacity, along with their complete unconcern for what will happen to three destitute girls who have treated them kindly, that turns Huck against his former associates and makes him decide that he must foil their plans as well as escaping from their clutches.
The Duke and the Dauphin have mainly been differentiated up to this point by the difference in their ages (the Duke is about thirty, the Dauphin about seventy) and by the Duke’s experience as an actor, leading him to take the lead in their theatrical performances. Now, however, it becomes clear that the Dauphin is the more hardened villain of the two, as well as the greedier. Huck singles him out as the master strategist of the plan, and it is his greed that causes it to fail. The Duke is in favor of taking the gold and running, leaving them with a handsome profit of $6,000 with which to disappear into the vastness of the American continent, with comparatively little chance of ever being caught. This would leave the girls with the lion’s share of the inheritance, their father’s property and business. The Dauphin will not agree to this. He insists not only on auctioning off all the property, but on selling the slaves and taking those profits as well, leaving the girls with absolutely nothing.
As the characters of the Duke and, more particularly, the Dauphin, become darker, there is a more somber tone and less comic relief in this section than has previously been the case. One memorable vignette is the funeral of Peter Wilks, which borders on farce, with the noise of the melodeum, the furious barking of the dog, and the undertaker gliding around the walls to investigate the disturbance, concluding with the intelligence that “He had a rat!” In general, however, the tone is more serious and sentimental than it has been before, with the absolute goodness and beauty of Mary Jane Wilks providing a foil for the abject villainy of the Dauphin.
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