"'Twixt You, Me, And The Gatepost"
Context: The Inn Album is one of numerous psychological studies of villainy which Browning produced; this one is based to some extent on a card-sharper case involving one Lord De Ros, a friend of Wellington, and recounted in Greville's memoirs. Browning adapted this material and added some other ideas which he took from the famous case of the Tichborne Claimant. The poem begins at an inn, where a young man and an older one have spent the night playing cards. The older man reckons up their winnings and losses on blank pages and margins in the inn's album. The two are friends but their friendship is one of convenience. The young man, relatively uncouth, is the son of a successful tradesman and has just inherited a million pounds. The older man is a person of refinement whose brother is a duke; however, he is relatively poor. Each cultivates the other for something he wants–the young man wishes to be instructed in the ways of that society in which his wealth may enable him to move; his companion sees in this unsophisticated youth a source of funds. When the game breaks up at dawn, the older man has lost and owes his companion ten thousand pounds, which he will have difficulty raising. The younger generously offers to forget the whole thing, but the older man is indignant–word might get around the clubs and ruin his reputation. They walk toward the station, where the older man will take a train to the city. His young companion suggests they have time for conversation, and they accordingly seat themselves on a convenient gate. The youth is curious: why should a man of the world, clever and urbane, be destitute? Why has he not found himself a sinecure? He begins prying into the older man's past, never guessing what sort of misfortune this may involve him in:
". . . The puzzle's past my power,How you have managed–with such stuff, such means–Not to be rich nor great nor happy man:Of which three good things where's a sign at all?. . ."Old man, no nonsense!–even to a boyThat's ripe at least for rationalityRapped into him, as maybe mine was, once!I've had my own small adventure lesson meOver the knuckles!–likely, I forgetThe sort of figure youth cuts now and then,Competing with old shoulders but young headDespite the fifty grizzling years!""Aha?Then that means–just the bullet in the bladeWhich brought Dalmatia on the brain,–that, too,Came of a fatal creature? Can't pretendNow for the first time to surmise as much!Make a clean breast! Recount! a secret's safe'Twixt you, me, and the gate-post!"