As he has done every year, Dr. Boli celebrates the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.
A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.
It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.
We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.
“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”
“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.
“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.
“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”
Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.
“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”
Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”
Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.
The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.
“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”
Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”
A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.
“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”
The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.
“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.
Abelard observed him closely.
“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”
He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.
For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.
“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”
Amelia takes me to Paris, where at last I am introduced to the admirable author of The Pursuit of Evil.
I suppose the previous chapter might have been as good a place to end my memoir as any. My empire at last was truly begun; as soon as was practicable, I had the necessary papers drawn up and signed by my father-in-law, transferring control of half his kingdom to me. With that capital I was able to expand the empire of Bousted & Son (I have not changed the name, since it was already so well recognized in the trade) at a prodigious rate. All my endeavors, as you doubtless know already, were crowned with success; and to-day it is impossible to walk into a well-stocked stationer’s without seeing the Bousted name on every article. Of course the famous Graded Stationery, “Much Imitated but Never Equaled” (as the watermark now states explicitly), still accounts for a large portion of our sales, and our canvassing agents extend the reach of my empire into every dusty hamlet in the trackless wastes of the West.
As for old Colonel Goode, he recovered marvelously over the next few months, and in fact is still with us at the age of ninety-eight. I honestly believe the man is immortal, but I no longer grudge him his immortality. He may outlive me and my daughters and their children for all I care; I have long since passed the time when his death would be of any use to me. I always take care to see that he has everything he could possibly desire; I have learned from my experience with him that a concerted campaign of ostentatious kindness is worth more than the most spectacular crime in promoting my own selfish interests. This, by the by, was one of the last things I had to learn to become a truly wicked man: though great crimes are within his power, the enlightened man seldom finds the trouble of them worth his while, when, at infinitely less risk to himself, he can win the same results with a few simple kindnesses that cost him nothing.
To all appearances, therefore, I am the very picture of prosperous virtue. My reputation for scrupulous honesty in business has served me well, for a man who is trusted will find opportunities that never present themselves to a man who has allowed his temporary desires to cloud his judgment and obscure his long-term advantage. My frequent and generous philanthropy keeps the Bousted name before the public eye, and I am convinced that, merely owing to the reputation my generosity purchases for me, I easily make back in profits the enormous sums I have donated to endow the Bousted Gallery in Allegheny, the Bousted Fund for Injured Workmen, the Bousted Bath-House in Dutchtown, and a dozen other institutions that bear my name.
—So you see we have really come to the end of the story, or at least of the story I promised to tell: the story of how I became perfectly wicked, and of the success that followed my adoption of the enlightened principles of true evil. But I cannot forbear adding one more chapter to these reminiscences of mine; and I believe that, should any readers of the distant future have followed my adventures up to this point, this last chapter will prove an instructive one. It is the story of my meeting with the great Comte de Baucher himself, and of the conclusions I drew from my observations of the man.
Amelia and I had been married nearly a year when she suddenly told me that we ought to go to Paris. “We’ve had so much trouble this past year that I think we ought to enjoy ourselves for a while. And I know you would love Paris, darling. So much beauty, so much music and art!”
“I’m not sure I can take the——”
“Now, don’t you dare tell me that you can’t take the time away from the firm,” she interrupted with mock severity. “Charles is perfectly capable of managing the ordinary affairs, and if anything extraordinary comes up, you can take care of it by telegram as quickly from Paris as you could from Pittsburgh. —Or are you just hoping to make me persuade you?”
I laughed. “Well, of course I always like to be persuaded,” I said; and Amelia laughed, too, and then persuaded me.
So we went to Paris, which was quite a voyage for a man who had never been farther from home than Altoona until he was married. It was a strange thing being confined to a Cunard liner without any communication from home: for the first two days, I ached to know what was happening with the firm, though I had left it in capable enough hands, and I might have gone mad had Amelia not been by my side. But by the time we reached Le Havre, it was marvelous how little I cared for business. There were two telegrams from Bradley waiting for me; in both of them he merely sought approval for a sensible action he had already taken. I wired him back telling him that he had done well, and that I had complete confidence in him, which—such is the mellowing effect of an ocean voyage—I actually did have.
What can one say about Paris? It is at once everything an American expects it to be and completely unexpected. I did not expect, for example, to find so many Americans there. At first I thought there must be as many Americans in Paris as in Pittsburgh. For several days, it was perfectly possible for me to get along without a word of the French I had so laboriously reviewed in preparation for our voyage, and for an hour or two every day on the steamer. Amelia knew Ambassador Noyes and his family well, and through him the best of the American society in the city; so our first few days were a whirlwind of galleries and operas and dinner parties, in all of which I was surrounded by a cloud of chattering Americans. Even the hotel staff, with whom I attempted to communicate in my imperfect French, brushed aside my attempts and spoke to me in nearly perfect English.
After a few days in Paris, however, Amelia began to find things to do without me during the day. She would disappear from the middle of the morning until just before supper; I once asked her where she was going, but she just told me, “A wife has to have some secrets from her husband, or she’ll be a bore.” Occasionally she would return followed by a train of bundles, so I assumed she must be off improving her wardrobe. How, after all, could she resist the opportunity of appearing in the latest Paris fashions a year before the other Pittsburgh belles could get their hands on them?
Since Amelia was off by herself, I spent my days wandering around the city, and for the first time saw Paris without my protective shell of American expatriates. My French was abysmal in the beginning, but rapidly improved with use; and the many hours I spent in the Louvre and other shrines of art soon persuaded me that I had a real love for pictures by the great masters of the past. I began to haunt Parisian galleries, buying about a picture a day—the foundation of my now considerable collection. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see that you like pictures so well,” Amelia told me as the crates of pictures took up more and more of the drawing-room. “It will give you and Father so much to talk about when we go back home.” And indeed it has been a blessing to have at least one thing in common with the old Colonel, since I still see him every day whether I like it or not. But I did find out later that Amelia had another reason for being pleased.
In the mean time, at one of those dinners filled with Americans, where a few notable Frenchmen were invited to delight the guests with their wit, or at least their reputation for wit, I heard something that suddenly attracted my lagging attention.
“You certainly have brought together some singular characters,” one of the Americans—a Chicago meat-packer who reeked of cigar-smoke—was saying to the hostess.
“Oh, Paris abounds in singular characters,” the hostess agreed. (I cannot remember her name; she was the wife of some banker or some such thing.) “I only wish the Comte de Baucher could have been here. We expected him, but his health is not good, and he was unable to leave his apartments tonight.”
“Baucher?” I asked, betraying as little of my sudden excitement as I could. “You mean the author?”
“Yes,” our hostess answered, “the very scandalous author. You’ve heard of him?”
“Only from—I believe it was an article in a magazine. Was it Harper’s? Or Scribner’s? Boli’s, perhaps?” I knew very well which magazine it was, of course.
“Well, I’m very sorry you didn’t have a chance to meet him. He is the most positively wicked man in Paris, of course, but he is old and harmless, and rather charming in conversation.”
With that began a rather tedious colloquy by which, without seeming to be more than half-interested in the subject, I extracted enough information from the woman to be able to locate the Comte. The following morning, I wrote to him, expressing my desire to make his acquaintance, as I had been much taken with what I had heard of his writings. I am sure I was very flattering in my letter; at any rate, it provoked the desired response, and the day after that, while Amelia was off on her usual all-day excursion, I was invited to pay a visit to the Comte de Baucher.
The Comte, it turned out, lived in a few neat but small rooms over a bakery in one of the less fashionable neighborhoods of Paris. Merely from the location, it was clear that he did not possess much wealth.
I was greeted at the door by a girl who could hardly have been more than seventeen. She told me that the Comte was expecting me and led me up the stairs to his little parlor, where she presented me to a very old man wrapped in a mauve silk robe and half-recumbent on a chaise. He was frail-looking, with a few wisps of pure white hair not quite covering his head. His face had doubtless once been well-made, but it was more than a little distorted by disease. As he slowly rose to a sitting position, I noted an uncontrollable tremor in his limbs.
In response to a whispered instruction from the Comte, the girl left the room, and the Comte began the conversation.
“Mister Bousted,” he greeted me,—cheerfully, but with a weak voice that obviously cost him some effort to produce.
“Monsieur le comte,” I returned, and I bowed as he offered me his withered and shaking hand.
“Your letter was such a delight,” he continued, “and I was desolated that I could not come to see you, but at present I am confined to these rooms.”
“I understand,” I responded, and I was about to tell him that I did not wish to give him any more trouble than his health could support, but he went on:
“Ah! You know what it is to have debts. If I show my face in the street, they are upon me, like the jackals. It should be sufficient for them to have the patronage of a Comte, but they are very unreasonable about the silver.”
“That is a pity,” I agreed, not knowing what else to say.
“And of course the debts of gambling, they are much worse. I should avoid them, but what can one say? When one is drunk, one feels invincible.”
Here the girl returned with two glasses filled with a liquid that smelled strongly of patent medicine, but which the Comte assured me was absinthe. “It is one of my little indulgences,” he said as the girl set the glasses on the table between us.
As the pretty maid turned to leave, the old Comte reached out toward her with obviously lewd intent; but he was so slow, like a clockwork toy whose mainspring is almost wound down, that she easily slipped out of his reach with a little sideways shuffle, a familiar movement so much practiced that she appeared to do it without thinking.
The Comte laughed in soft little wheezes. “You see, even at my age, I still have an eye for the young beauties. I still pursue the little ones.” He wheezed a few more times before adding, “Years ago, of course, I used to catch them.”
I nodded, not really sure what else to say, and picked up one of the glasses of foul-looking green fluid the girl had left. But I could not bring myself to drink it.
I could report the rest of our conversation, but it is better left unrecorded. What can I say? The man was a complete imbecile. He had seen the way to true greatness, but instead he had squandered his endowments on petty pleasures and appetites of the moment. I do not believe he ever denied himself anything that he took it into his head to desire. He had no thought for the future; and even now, wasted away by self-inflicted disease and intemperance, he could think of nothing but the next little indulgence.
What a strange and bitter lesson for every evildoer! It is not enough to understand the principles of evil, as the Comte had done; they must be acted upon. Every waking moment of the wicked man’s life must be devoted to the pursuit of evil: he must not allow a temporary enjoyment to distract him from his true advantage. He must forgo pleasures now that will have ill consequences later, and exercise manly self-restraint at all times. Without such dedication, a mere knowledge of the principles of evil is useless.
I returned from my interview with the Comte to find Amelia waiting for me. She greeted me with even more than her usual affection, and then told me to sit in the arm-chair in the drawing-room. “I have a gift for you,” she said, “and you must tell me that you love it, or—or I don’t know what I’ll do.” She was flushed a beautiful shade of rose as she walked over to the corner of the room where my latest pictures were waiting to be crated. There was one exceptionally large one, covered with a blanket, that I did not remember having bought.
“Now you’ll know what I was doing all day these past two weeks,” she told me. “And if you were any other sort of husband, darling, I’d never have done it. But I know you trust me as completely as I trust you, and I thought—well, I thought that this might please you.”
She took hold of the blanket and hesitated for a moment, as if gathering her courage. Then, with a flourish of her right arm, she unveiled a picture that left me utterly speechless.
Amelia also stood silent for a few moments, letting me admire her gift. “It’s not Boucher,” she said at last, “but I went to the only artist I know in Paris today who can compare to him in—this sort of subject.”
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” I said quietly. “I mean, except the model herself, of course.”
Amelia smiled brightly. “I was sure you would like it. If you were any other sort of man, I’d never have dared, but you’re so full of goodness and love that I knew you could never be angry with me.”
She came to me and sat on the arm of the chair, bending down for a kiss.
“I don’t quite know where you’ll put it,” she continued. “It’s not the sort of thing my father should see.”
“Not if his heart is as weak as Dr. Andick says it is,” I agreed with a smile.
“Do you really love it, Galahad? I wanted so much to give you something no one else could give you.”
“I really love it, Amelia,” I answered with absolute conviction.
“The artist has written the title on the back of the canvas,” she said. “He calls it ‘La Belle Americaine.’”
Let this picture, dear reader,—which is before me right now, on the wall of my inner office, where I have written this manuscript,—let it serve, I say, as an emblem of everything that can be gained by pure wickedness: wealth, reputation, beauty,—yea, even love, properly understood as the satisfaction of a man’s desires without danger or inconvenience. Let every enlightened young man take his example from me: let him avoid the fatal follies of men like Baucher, who understood the principles of evil in the abstract, but was not able to rein in his appetites. Let him gain a reputation for scrupulous honesty in every branch of affairs; let him be remarked for his humble piety and conspicuous in charity; let him devote himself with assiduous care to the happiness of those around him, that they may be found useful in promoting his own happiness. Let him deviate neither to the left nor to the right, but keep to the straight and narrow path of truly enlightened self-interest. Then, if he has been faithful to these principles, he cannot fail of enjoying the many rewards of true wickedness.
I dedicate myself anew to the principles of evil, and discover a perfectly rational way of obtaining the capital I desire.
My father was dead and buried, and my life was in every way improved by the loss, but I was uncharacteristically sullen for two weeks after the funeral. In fact I was filled with anger, almost rage. How could I have been so unmanned by grief? I had thought myself enlightened; instead, I was a slave to the same follies as every other man. I had mourned when I ought to have celebrated. I had wept openly again at the funeral; now that I look back from the distance of so many years, I see that it was a good and useful thing for me to do, since it cemented the impression that I had been a loving and dutiful son, but at the time I was very angry at myself for having done it. It did not happen because I had lost anything precious to me by any reasonable accounting; no, it could only be because I was not yet the rational man I thought I was. It seemed to me as if I had been attacked by goodness and virtue at an unexpectedly weak point in my defenses; I was as angry as a general whose sleeping sentries have allowed a breach in his fortifications.
Amelia did her best to console me. “It will be better,” she assured me. “You will be happy. I know it seems hopeless now, but there will be a time when instead of grief you will have happy memories. You’ll see.”
That was all very well, but she did not understand, and could not understand, the source of my gloomy disposition. I felt as though a great accomplishment had been taken away from me. How could I call myself wicked if I reacted to an ordinary loss in such an extraordinarily undignified manner? Amelia could never understand my turmoil, because I could never tell her the reason for it. She was a perfect angel, and I was rather cold to her; but she never blamed me for it. “I understand,” she always told me, though of course she could not understand at all. “You will feel better soon.”
As if my rage at my own grief were not enough to keep me in a foul temper, old Colonel Goode started to show signs of illness as well. He had grieved as much as I had at my father’s death; my father, I know not why, had become his intimate friend, and the man really had no other intimate friends. He took to his bed with a chill, as he called it, but it rapidly became something worse. Amelia tried her best to keep the household together; but with my ill temper and her father’s illness, she found it very difficult to keep up any degree of cheer herself.
Nothing seemed to be going well for me (except that the firm continued to grow, but not at the rate I desired). In my despair I turned to the one source from which I derived all my consolation: the words of Baucher, or rather the few discoveries of his that had been transmitted by the reviewer in the Gentleman’s Cabinet.
What did Baucher tell me? What was his marvelous discovery? That there was no crime, no matter how monstrous it might be judged by inferior minds, that the enlightened man would not commit if it brought him some advantage. He would let no inferiors stand between him and the thing he desired.
And what stood between me and the thing I desired? Merely the existence of my father-in-law. As soon as he ceased to exist, every penny of his vast fortune would belong to me. —But what was preventing him from ceasing to exist at once? He was old, and he was ill; was it not to be expected that he should terminate his earthly existence rather sooner than later? And would not the truly enlightened man—the one who did not merely understand the principles of evil, but actively put them into practice—find some way of making sure that it happened sooner?
As soon as the thought occurred to me, I understood that I had hit on, not merely a solution to my difficulties, but a redemption from my temporary backsliding. It would be the most audacious crime I had ever contemplated, but surely such a superior mind as mine would discover some way of accomplishing it without undue risk. Did I dare attempt it? The moment the question was put that way, it was answered. I had dared myself to do it: I must murder Colonel Goode. Out of habit, my hand rose toward my lip, but my fingers found no moustache there to twirl.
That evening after supper I spoke to Amelia. “I know that I have been difficult since my father died,” I told her, “and I can hardly make any excuse for my cruelty—— ”
“Oh, you haven’t been cruel,” she insisted. “Don’t think that of yourself. You have only been—sad, really. How could you not be so? I know how much you loved your father. I loved him almost as much, in the short time I knew him.”
“But I have not loved you enough,” I said with perhaps the first smile I had given her in more than two weeks. “You have done so much for me, and I have repaid you so badly. And now you’re wearing yourself down taking care of your father. You’ve lifted so many burdens from me; now you must let me lift some of your burdens, my dear.”
She smiled as well, obviously happy to see me in better spirits again. “I haven’t any burdens too heavy for me to carry.”
“But you must still let me take some of the weight,” I insisted. “Let me spend some of the evening with your father. I know you’ve been keeping him in good cheer, but you can’t keep up spending so many hours by his bed. I don’t ask you to leave him to the servants—I know you wouldn’t, and you’re quite right. But he’s the only father I have now, and for myself as well as for him I can surely spare a few hours here and there.”
Amelia looked at me quietly for a moment. “I understand,” she said at last. “Yes, it would do him good. He thinks the world of you, you know. And I can see that it will do you good as well.”
So that was settled: I should be spending time regularly alone with the Colonel. I walked out into the hall and puffed out a long sigh. It had actually pained me, almost physically, to make Amelia part of my plot that way. She would mourn the loss of her father terribly. How could I do such a thing to her? —But the old man must die soon whether I killed him or not, and she would mourn the same either way. I must not let virtuous impulses creep over me and steal my resolve! My anger at my own failings must sustain me in my enterprise.
Now, it may already have occurred to you, my dear hypothetical reader, that I had a particular motive in relieving Amelia of some of the burden of keeping her father company. I had already decided that, of all the means there were of ridding the world of one superfluous old millionaire, poison was the most suitable to my purposes. A well-chosen poison would not be suspected: if a sick old man died, who would suppose that he died from any other cause than being sick and old? Then his fortune would be mine. It was true that I could not apply it to my own purposes right away: that would look too suspicious. A decent interval must be maintained between his death and my reaping the benefits of it; it was an inconvenience, but it could not be helped. Still, with his death I should be confirmed in the eventual enjoyment of his fortune. And if poison was to be the means, then I must seek the best opportunity for administering it. I must be familiar with his habits, and find some way of getting the poison into him that would excite no suspicion either in him or in anyone else.
“Galahad!” the Colonel greeted me cheerfully when I appeared in his chamber after supper. “I’d been expecting Amelia.”
“But you’ve got me,” I replied with a convincing affectation of good cheer. “A poor substitute, I’m sure, but Amelia needs a rest now and then. I insisted.”
“Well, that’s very good of you, Galahad. Very good indeed.”
And so I spent two or three hours with him, talking about nothing of consequence and reading to him from his Bible by the bedside. We were reading from the General Epistle of James; I remember it well, because I recall thinking how well the words applied to my own case. “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” Well, I had asked and been refused. And so the next verse continues: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” See how readily this Christian religion provides a way to keep the inferior man in his place! He is told that he may have anything he asks for, as long as his motivation is not to spend it upon his pleasures. But upon what else would he desire to spend it? Thus the superior man may hoard all the wealth and keep it from the inferior man, and the latter remains convinced that, if his motives were pure—which he knows is not the case, since all men desire pleasure—he would have what the rich man has. It is through the fault of his own impure thoughts that he is poor. But the superior man knows that, when there is any thing he desires, if it is not his, then the only reason is because he has not yet taken it.
Shortly after this passage, we were interrupted by the appearance of Sheridan, who bore a glass containing an amber-colored liquid.
“Here’s my tonic,” Colonel Goode announced as he took the glass. “The worst part of my day. Dreadful stuff. Brimstone in a glass. But Doctor Andick insists.” He looked at the glass for a while as if gathering up his courage, and then downed it all in one draught, after which he made the most appalling faces.
Immediately it occurred to me that this might be an opportunity. The tonic had a flavor strong enough to mask anything I might choose to adulterate it with. Now I had only to find the proper ingredient.
The next evening I intercepted Sheridan on his way to Colonel Goode with the tonic. “I can take it to him,” I said. “In fact, from now on, I’ll take care of the tonic—that way you won’t have to interrupt our devotions.”
Sheridan nodded, doubtless content to be relieved of one of his duties, and I took the glass in to the Colonel.
I did not have the resources for an exhaustive study of poisons. Colonel Goode had many books, but his large collection was shockingly lacking in treatises on successful murder; and my friend Mr. Carnegie had not yet begun to litter the continent with libraries. From the limited information at my disposal, however, I concluded that strychnine would be my best choice. This poison was just becoming fashionable in those days; it was not yet the chief ingredient in every sensation novel. Yet it was readily available in several stores downtown. I obtained a small amount of it, along with some rat traps and other similar items that were of no use to me, but would avert suspicion from my purchase.
Night after night I spent by Colonel Goode’s bedside, observing everything he did, and everything else that happened in the household at the same time. I desired to leave nothing to chance. When I did strike, it must not even be suspected; there must have been nothing out of the established routine.
At last I determined that the time had come. The Colonel seemed if anything to be getting better; I must strike while he was still frail enough that his death would excite no suspicion. I prepared the tonic as usual, but with a liberal addition of strychnine.
“I’ve brought your tonic,” I said as I entered the chamber. It was my usual greeting. This evening was an unusually warm one, but a cooling breeze was coming through the open window by the chair where I sat next to the Colonel’s bed. “You might as well get it down now, and then you’ll be done with it,” I added, trying not to sound at all impatient.
The Colonel scowled at the glass, but he took it in his hand. This was the moment: the consummation of my career of wickedness. The Colonel had the poisoned cup in his grip; he was about to administer his own destruction.
“I’ve been thinking, Galahad,” he said; and I privately thought to myself that he would not be troubled by thinking much longer.
“Have you?” I asked with feigned interest.
“I may not last very much longer, or I may recover and live for several more years.” (Little chance of that, I thought to myself.) “But I remember what it was like to be young. I used to have a little sense of adventure myself, you know. There were times when I did things that might not have seemed wise at the moment. But they worked out well in the end. I’m sure I owe a lot of my wealth to luck. But you have to give luck a chance to operate, don’t you?”
“I suppose you do,” I agreed, only half attending to the conversation. I wished he would simply drink and be done with it.
“Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about, Galahad. It was luck that brought you to my Amelia, but the two of you made the most of that chance, didn’t you?”
I had almost said that we made the most of it every night, but I restrained myself.
“You’re a young man who knows how to profit from opportunity,” the Colonel continued. “There was a time when I had little money, but plenty of opportunity. Now I have plenty of money, and I’ve forgotten how much I needed opportunity in those days. And here you are, looking at an opportunity, and I’m standing in your way.”
Yes, I thought, but not for much longer.
“Well, I ought not to be standing in your way. You need a chance to rise by your own talent. And if you fall—which I still regard as a distinct possibility—you’re young, and you’ll have time to pick yourself up again. I’ve become cautious in my old age, Galahad, but youth isn’t the time for caution. If I’d been as cautious in my youth as I am now, I’d never have built my first glass works. I see that now. I also see that no one deserves this chance more than you do. In spite of a hundred other things I’m sure you’d rather be doing, you take the time to cheer an old man in his sickbed.”
“Now, you know that’s not a burden to me,” I insisted, looking down at the glass in his hand.
“Which is exactly what you would say no matter how much of a burden it was,” the Colonel replied with a bit of a twinkle. “You’ve made sacrifices for me, Galahad. You’ve been a dutiful and loving son, as much to me as you were to your own natural father. And I’ve decided to give you that opportunity I know you’ve been longing for, even though you’ve been far too good-natured to complain.”
This had me pricking up my ears. I was now completely attentive to the old man’s words. “Opportunity?” I asked, as if I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You’ve been wanting to buy the Rohrbaugh store and make Bousted’s into a big concern. I have the money that could do that, and I wouldn’t give it to you. Well, now I’m giving it to you. In fact, from this moment, half my fortune is yours. As soon as I can have it done, it will be put in your name—the part that’s in banks, at any rate. So you see, I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be young—although I doubt whether I was such an admirable young man as you are.”
This was such an unexpected victory that the most ridiculously absurd response passed my lips before I could recall it: “Are you certain that is what you wish to do?”
The Colonel laughed weakly. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Galahad. You and Amelia are worth more than my whole fortune to me. You can at least take half of it without complaining.”
At that moment, a light burst over my intellect, and I understood where the course of true evil had led me. It was not by the commission of a single spectacular crime that I had accomplished this great conquest: it was by insinuating myself gradually into the Colonel’s affections. With no risk at all to myself, with no crime attributable to me, but merely by assiduously attending to the whims of a harmless old man, I had gained everything I wanted.
“Well, then,” I said after a moment’s silence, “I shall attempt to make the best use of it.”
“I’m certain you will. At least you’ll make some use of it, where I’ve been hiding my talent in the ground. At any rate, that is my decision, and we’ll have the papers drawn up in the morning. Now I suppose I’d better get this tonic down.”
“No!” I nearly shouted; and I seized the glass from his trembling fingers and flung the liquid out the window.
“Why, Galahad, what’s the matter?” he asked with more than a touch of surprise.
“Oh, it was——a fly. A perfectly enormous fly. Didn’t you see it? Not a very pleasant thing to find in your glass! I’ll get you another one right away.”
My imperial ambitions seem to be thwarted by the folly and ignorance of my elders.
No man could have been happier than I in the days after my wedding. I had every reason to be happy: my possession of Amelia was at last complete, and my wickedest lusts now found fulfillment with the sanction and approval of Christian convention. What a strange thing it is that a man who, in the eyes of all society, would be condemned as a vicious criminal if he ravished an unmarried woman, can be, by a few words spoken in a church, made into a paragon of virtue, with the uncontested right to ravish the same woman whenever he pleases!—Indeed, in my case, I believe Amelia ravished me at least half the time. It had never occurred to me, when I began to pursue Amelia, that a woman could take as much pleasure in conjugal relations as a man, or perhaps even more. It may be that Amelia is exceptional in that regard. I do not know; I know only that if you, young reader, should find such a woman, you ought to marry her at once, and let no scruples against foolish Christian morality stand between you and a lifetime of pleasure.
My happiness, therefore, was intense,—but it was not unalloyed. After my first few days as a married man, I began to consider that my position, while immeasurably improved, was not yet all I might wish for. The wealth I enjoyed in the Goode household was not mine; I did not control it, and indeed could not really do anything with it. At times it almost maddened me to think of all that money sitting idle (for Colonel Goode had a great personal fortune just sitting in banks) when it could have been building my empire of pens and paper. Then Amelia would call for me, and I would forget to be anything but happy. Only when I was not with Amelia did I perceive any deficiency in my life.
I took an entire week away from the firm after the wedding (though we took no wedding-trip, such things not being the fashion then among Allegheny society as they are now), and by the end of it I had begun to worry about how the store might be faring in my absence. Most of our revenue was coming from sales of paper and pens to department-stores and stationers across the country; but the store was still the capital, so to speak, of my empire, and I was not certain that I trusted my father to run it without me.
When I did come back for the first time, I was appalled to discover that my father, whom I had supposed to be running the place to the best of his ability, had not set foot in the store at all for the previous week, and that the management of the whole store had been left in the hands of Bradley. Even more shocking was that a new hired man was stocking shelves and waiting on patrons as if he knew his business. Bradley explained that my father’s health had not permitted him to spend his days in the store; and, as he had not wished to trouble me with business so soon after my wedding, he had permitted Bradley to hire another clerk, who had been working since Wednesday. I was forced to admit a grudging admiration for the man who had persuaded my father to lay out the money to hire another man; and, having observed him for some time, I found the new man to be quite good at what he was doing. Bradley had made an excellent choice. Moreover, a quick glance at the books informed me that the store was thriving under Bradley’s management. He took particular care to see to it that he served all the society matrons himself, and his unaccountable skill in dealing with them never failed to make a sale.
It appeared that the store on Wood-street could do without me after all. It was time to broaden the scale of my enterprise,—which doubtless would involve taking a great many risks of which my father would not approve. If only I had the Goode fortune to draw on for capital! But at least I could make the most of what I had.
For that reason, I resolved to pay a visit to my father, hoping that his current indisposition might be turned to my advantage. Leaving the store again in the obviously capable hands of Bradley, I took the horse-car back across the Allegheny (I believe this must have been very nearly the last time I availed myself of the horse-cars) and presented myself at the front door of the house on Beech-street. I was just about to commence the usual thunderous cacophony of ringing and knocking that was necessary to bring Mrs. Ott to the door when the door opened and a well-dressed man nearly ran into me on his way out of the house.
For a moment he registered surprise; then his brow lowered into an expression of hostile doubt.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
I was not accustomed to such a greeting on what had been, until very recently, my own doorstep. “Galahad Newman Bousted,” I replied, drawing myself up to my full height, and perhaps a little more.
“Ah—the son.” His face opened a little, as if I had been moved from the class of enemies into the class of mere nuisances in his estimation. “Well, I suppose you may go in. But he is not to be agitated. He is to have no other visitors—do you understand, my boy? I want him to have rest. I have every hope if he has rest. And no heavy foods at all. Rest, beef broth and a bit of toast, and above all no agitations of the mind. Do you think you can do that, my boy? Very good.” (He had not waited for a reply.) “I must be off now. I shall call to-morrow to see how my instructions have been carried out. Good day.” He touched the brim of his hat in the most perfunctory manner possible and slipped past me.
I remember feeling rather peevish at being called “my boy” twice. I, the husband of Amelia Goode Bousted, the son-in-law of Hiram Goode, the prime mover of the Bousted stationery empire—I was surely no “boy”! But it would not be very rational to dwell on some perceived slight from a stranger when my father was busy turning a slight cold into a Verdi opera. I had better go up and see him, make the proper expressions of filial concern, and then proceed with my original purpose of turning his temporary indisposition to my advantage.
I found my father sitting up in bed, with a half-finished bowl of broth on a tray beside him. “Ah! Galahad,” he greeted me with his usual oafish good cheer;—and then a protracted fit of coughing overcame him. He was certainly playing the melodrama consumptive well, with every turn and trope executed to perfection. Perhaps his pallor was off by a few shades, but it would answer the purpose.
“Why haven’t you told me you were ill?” I asked with what I hoped was just the right mixture of reproach and sympathy.
“Oh, my boy, there’s no need to worry yourself. Dr. Gratz says I’ll be just fine if I rest. I’d never have sent for him myself, but——” and here another bout of hacking came over him, and I had to wait an eternity to hear the end of a very dull sentence—“but Camellia insisted. She’s a good girl, but she will have her way.”
“And she’s quite right,” I told him. Privately I wondered whether Camellia had ever been right about anything in her life, but it suited me that my father’s indisposition should be magnified in his eyes. “Would you have been resting now if Dr. Gratz hadn’t insisted on it? You must rest, and you must leave everything else to your dutiful children. Viola and Camellia, I’m sure, can take care of your domestic arrangements, and I can take care of the business. I want you to think no more about it at all. Your wise guidance has fortunately placed Bousted & Son in such a position that it no longer needs your direct supervision, and the recovery of your health must be your primary, and indeed your only, consideration.” As I look back on those days, I see that I was in the habit of talking like an historian, which I probably thought added to the impression of gravity I desired to leave on those around me.
My father did not respond quite as I had wished. “Ah! Galahad, you really are everything I hoped you would be. But you needn’t worry so much about me. I’ll be much better in a week or two.”
“Nevertheless,” I said (with a broad and ingratiating smile), “I want you to turn the operation of Bousted & Son over to me entirely. You’ve earned a rest from your labors by a lifetime of ceaseless care for your business and your family.”
My father laughed merrily, which brought on another spell of coughing. There was nothing to do but wait it out. The time dragged appallingly as my father coughed and coughed; and each time I thought he had finished, and was about to resume our conversation, he started up again. Of all the embarrassing habits he had fallen into throughout his life, this coughing was by far the most annoying. Did he have to draw it out so?
At last he was ready to speak. “Oh, Galahad, you are a devoted son, to be sure,” he said with a smile, “but I’m not quite yet the permanent invalid you seem to think I am. I can see I’ve worried you too much. Dr. Gratz thinks I’ll be just fine with some rest, and I’m not ready to give up business just yet. What would I do all day? Please set your mind at ease, and—” (here he was interrupted by another spasm of coughing) “—and don’t give me another thought.”
This entirely unsatisfactory answer was all I could get from him. I had hoped to seize complete control of the firm, relieving my father of the last vestiges of his authority (and thus his ability to stand in the way of my grander schemes), and I had failed. Imbecile that he was, he was still capable of blocking my imperial ambitions. Really, it was too bad of him. I expressed the expected wishes for his speedy recovery, and I left in a foul mood.
Still, I had half-formed a scheme of action by the time I came back to the Goode mansion that evening. It was true that I saw my course through a glass darkly, but at least I had thought through enough of it to conclude that, if I could not convince my father of his own incapacity, I could at least implant that notion in the minds of the rest of the family. If he were surrounded by people who sincerely advised him to retire from business, he might be more willing to consider the idea; and if it came to open conflict with my father, I ought to have as many allies as I could impress into my service.
“My father’s health,” I told Amelia that evening, “is very discouraging. He didn’t wish to trouble me, but he hasn’t been well at all. And he has only old Mrs. Ott to take care of him, which is hardly any help at all.”
“Oh, the poor man!” Amelia said with genuine concern,—for she, like the old Colonel, had taken a perfectly unaccountable liking to my father. “Has a doctor seen him?”
“Yes—Camellia sent for a Dr. Gratz. I spoke with him today. He’s not very hopeful unless my father will rest—but you know him; you know that he doesn’t like to give up his daily business. I told him he ought to turn everything over to me, but he won’t hear of it.—And of course Mrs. Ott is of very little use, even if he can make himself heard. I worry about him in that house alone, or as good as alone. What if——”
“He must come here,” Amelia announced decisively.
For a moment, I was not certain what I had heard. “You mean—but you see, he is meant to be resting, and——”
“Well, of course, and he can do that so much better here. Our staff is not all deaf”—she smiled—“and you know my father would be delighted to have the company. There’s no reason for him to keep up that whole house when all his children have married, and we have ever so much more room than we need here.”
This was not at all what I had had in mind. I had only just escaped my father a week ago! But the notion had entered Amelia’s head, and now there was no getting it out. Her father had warned me, and he was quite right: once she had decided on something, Amelia was as unstoppable as a Baldwin locomotive. She took it for granted, of course, that I would be delighted by her attention to my father, and she set about making arrangements at once. In two days, the cavernous halls of the Goode mansion were echoing to the melodious sound of my father’s incessant hacking. Viola and her husband, meanwhile, took over the house on Beech-street. I did wonder why, if my father was so dreadfully ill, Mr. and Mrs. Colebrook could not have moved into the house while he was still there, to give him the assistance he needed; but my one hint of a question to Viola was met with such an indignant glare that I did not ask again. At any rate, the thing was done: my father was now part of the household, and the only consolation was in the size of the house, which was big enough that it was perfectly possible to lose one’s way between one end and the other.
The worst thing about the arrangement was that everyone else felt so positively jolly about it that I had to pretend to be jolly as well. The first morning of my father’s stay, he insisted on coming down to breakfast, which I am quite sure would have displeased Dr. Gratz. Colonel Goode immediately fell into familiar conversation with him, and soon the two of them were exchanging dull stories and feeble witticisms as if they had known each other all their lives. Sometimes they included Amelia and me in their conversation, but it was clear that our fathers were two kindred souls, knit together by a shared imbecility. How Colonel Goode had managed to amass his great fortune was a thing I could not explain at all: luck must have had a great deal to do with it, or perhaps he was a very different man in his youth.
“Your father is such a charming man,” Amelia remarked as I was preparing to go into town for the day.
“What makes you say that?” I asked with my best jolly smile. I was working very hard at being jolly, but I was genuinely puzzled.
“Oh, he’s always so happy—even when he’s so ill. He laughs so easily, and he always has a good word for everybody.”
Privately, I thought that Amelia’s description would exactly fit a good number of the idiots at the asylum; but I had to pretend to be pleased. “Yes, he’s always been like that. I was fortunate to have such a good example in my youth. Now, don’t let him wear you out with tending to his whims. I know your good nature, but you needn’t run to him every time he calls for one of the servants. It will make him feel as though he’s taking advantage of you.” That might or might not have been true, but I had my own private reasons for not wishing Amelia to be worn out when I came home, as I am sure any man who has ever been a new husband can imagine.
It was very different going in to the store since my marriage. For one thing, I began to arrive by carriage instead of by horse-car, which caused no little sensation among the other shopkeepers on the street the first time it happened. There could be no surer indication that I had risen far above them. It was Amelia who thought I was foolish to take the horse-car: “Surely Henry could drive you,” she said, “and wouldn’t you be much more comfortable that way?” I felt a little foolish myself when I realized that none of the other members of the Allegheny aristocracy were familiar with the horse-cars at all, except as conveyances for their day-laborers and scullery-maids.
Within the store it was very different as well. My father was no longer there to annoy me, and Bradley was perfectly capable of running the place by himself, with the able assistance of the new clerk. (I have forgotten the new man’s name; I cannot distinguish him in my memory from the innumerable clerks we have had in the store since then.) I occasionally waited on a lady who seemed particularly likely to place a large order, but I am not sure that I handled the patrons any better than Bradley did. Colebrook was doing a fine job with the correspondence, although there was so much of it that I often lent my assistance there as well. On the whole, though, I had much less to do. Clearly it was time to apply my own efforts to expanding the reach of Bousted & Son, making it the colossus I had intended it to be since I first heard the prophetic message of that can of tooth powder.
The great problem to solve was the problem of money. I desired not merely a national but an international reach, an empire of six continents, with ladies from Norway to New South Wales scrawling their fatuous correspondence on Bousted Stationery, with Bousted pens dipped in Bousted ink, perhaps even sitting at Bousted writing-desks. Such an empire could hardly be built by three or four men working in the little store on Wood-street; we already had more correspondence than Colebrook could handle, and even without any special effort it was clear that I would require five or six Colebrooks in a few months. No, to expand my empire to satisfactory dimensions I should need many men working in many offices in a big building with my name at the top. That would require a prodigious investment,—but one that would reap suitably prodigious returns, if my guess about the market was correct.
These thoughts were revolving in my mind more and more when I heard a bit of business gossip that suddenly accelerated their revolutions. It was said that old Mr. Rohrbaugh had decided to retire from trade, and that he was looking for a buyer for his store. Now, I had no desire to run a department store, but it occurred to me that the building itself was just about the size I had in mind for the expanded Bousted & Son empire. It was ideally located: a larger Bousted & Son store might occupy the ground floor, near enough to the original location that our regular patrons would suffer no inconvenience from the move. —This at least was the reason I gave myself, and it was very true that we did require a larger building for our expanding firm; but I am sure that my true motive was vanity. I had always regarded Mr. Rohrbaugh as the great man of Wood-street; by conquering his establishment, I should become the universally acknowledged great man of Wood-street.
The opportunity must be seized; but it required much more in capital than Bousted & Son possessed. My father-in-law, however, had enough filthy lucre stashed away in various places to buy half the city of Pittsburgh. Surely he could spare the necessary amount.
Such was my reasoning, but I was doomed to disappointment. I presented the idea to him as an opportunity for a sound investment that could be reasonably expected to pay unusually high dividends, but he flatly refused to give me even the paltry sum I required to buy the Rohrbaugh building. In fact, he laughed in my face. It was not an ill-natured laugh; it was oafishly good-natured, which was all the worse. “I think you’re a bit young to be making such grand plans for yourself,” he said cheerily.
I did try to reason with him. “I only thought it might be a good opportunity for you as well,” I said, “one that would make you a substantial profit in time.”
“I doubt whether I have that kind of time on this earth,” he replied with another oafish laugh. “You’ll have it all when I’m gone, anyway, but I intend to stick around for a little while longer.”
“Oh, many years, surely, I trust.” Of course I had to pretend to be just as pleased as punch by his refusal, telling him that I valued his wisdom and experience more than I could say, and that he should dispose of his money as he saw fit. I put on a smile to cover my bleak mood and walked out into the street to compose my thoughts. But I must confess that they were still in some disarray when I came back home.
Meanwhile, my father affected to be worse and worse. He could no longer come downstairs, but had his meals brought up to him. Colonel Goode spent a great deal of time by his bedside, and of course I, ever the dutiful son, did what I could to make myself look useful. I knew that I had created the proper impression of filial concern when Amelia warned me not to wear myself out too much with worry over my father. “I know how you love him, Galahad, but he has me and the staff to take care of him as well. I don’t want you growing old before your time.”
“Hardly any danger of that,” I assured her. But I did agree to spend less time with my father, which suited me better than she knew.
In the mean time, it was definitely announced that Rohrbaugh’s had been sold,—but the firm, not the building. Rosenbaum’s had bought up the stock, the name, and whatever else went with the store, and would be operating as “Rosenbaum & Rohrbaugh.” (This did not last long, of course; the name of Rohrbaugh disappeared from the signs a few years later.) That left the big store empty and looming ominously over the rest of Wood-street.
I was ruminating, hardly for the first time, on my frustration in being unable to purchase that building when I visited my father for our nightly talk. This particular evening he wanted to talk about me, to which I should have had no objection if he had not been so distastefully maudlin about it.
“You’ve become everything I hoped you would be,” he told me, “and I suppose a great deal more than I’d hoped. I won’t be around much longer, but I can see that I have no reason to fear for you after I’m gone.” Here he began to cough—not the vigorous, house-shaking coughs to which he had treated us a few weeks earlier, but a softer, altogether more civilized cough.
“I trust you’ll be with us a good many more years,” I told him; and I really did believe it. How could he leave me and deprive himself of the pleasure of annoying me every day?
“Well,” he said, his cough momentarily settling down, “I’ve lived to see all my children well established and happy, and how could I wish for anything more than that? If I go now, I know I’m going to my reward, and you’ll do a first-rate job of managing the firm. You’ll keep your sisters in mind, too, won’t you, Galahad? They depend on you more than you know.”
Well, of course they depended on me; I knew the exact extent of their dependence. One word from me, and their husbands would find themselves without positions. “I’ll always make sure they have everything they could possibly need,” I promised him, which was an easy promise to make, even if I intended to keep it. How much, after all, could they possibly need? Their desires might be infinite, but their actual needs were few.
“Of course you will. Now, Galahad, if you’ll forgive an old man——”; but here he began to cough again, and kept it up for two or three minutes. He liked to keep me waiting for the end of a sentence; it gave his statements a gravity they would not otherwise possess. “Well, Galahad,” he was able to say at last, “I don’t think you need much advice anymore. But a man likes to feel that he hasn’t lived his whole life without learning something. So I’ll pass on to you the little I’ve learned over the past sixty years. The one thing you can’t forget, Galahad, is your family. You live with people every day, and you never think how much they mean to you; but a moment, Galahad, a moment can take them away, and then where are you?”
Rather better off, I thought to myself; but I held my tongue.
“Your dear mother,” he continued after another coughing spell, “was everything to me, but she was taken away from me long before her time. But she left me the greatest gift in her power—my three children. I know your mother would be proud beyond words to see what you’ve made of yourself, Galahad. For her sake, remember your sisters, your precious wife, my friend Colonel Goode—all your family. Always put them first, and in everything you do make their happiness your guiding principle. If you do that, your mother will look down from heaven and smile, and—and so will I.”
I had to sit through a great deal more of this dime-novel sentimentality, which it pains me to repeat even more than it pains you, dear reader, to hear it; but eventually I left him and retired in the infinitely more satisfactory company of my wife.
I went into town as usual the next day, which was quite dull and rainy; and I had been in the store for about three hours, helping Bradley with the patrons (for we were very busy that day), when Henry suddenly appeared in the doorway.
“Mrs. Bousted needs you at home right away, sir,” he told me—more words, I believe, than I had ever heard him speak in one sentence.
“Did she say why?” I asked, looking up from the ugly scrawl in front of me.
“The elder Mr. Bousted is not well,” he answered.
Well, that was to be expected, I thought. I tried to tell Henry that I should come as soon as I had finished helping the lady in front of me, but the patron told me that I was not to worry about her, and that my father (whom she remembered, it seemed) was more important than her stationery. Bereft of my only excuse for delay, I glumly followed Henry to the carriage, which was waiting in the rain in front of the store, thinking all the while that here was yet another indignity I should be suffering more and more often. My father was obviously set on a long course of decline. He had made up his mind to play the part of the melodrama consumptive, and every day must bring some new crisis, or the play would lose its excitement for him. Well, somehow a stop must be put to this at once. Before he got accustomed to sending for me whenever the notion entered his head, he must be made to understand that we had servants to take care of his whims, and it simply would not do for him to have Amelia call me away from business every single day on some foolish pretext or other.
I was still ruminating on these things when I stepped into the entry hall at home; but my thoughts were brushed aside when I saw Amelia standing there, waiting for me. I had formed in my mind a certain picture of what she would look like when I arrived: she would look a little apologetic,—cheerful as usual, but understanding that she had allowed me to be inconvenienced, and rather wishing that she had not been put in that position. But that was not the picture that greeted my eyes at all. The Amelia I saw was standing still, with her head tilted a little downward, but her eyes meeting mine. Her cheeks were pale; her eyes were red. She was calm, but it was a calm that had come after a storm.
“Galahad,” she said quietly, “your father died a half-hour ago.”
I looked at her blankly; I remember I felt as if I ought to say something, and could think of absolutely no words that would suit the occasion.
“Dr. Andick was here, and I sent for you as soon as I could, but—— ”
She could think of no more to say after that; and for a moment we stood there in that hall, silently, looking at each other, separated by a distance of about two yards. I remember how sharp and distinct all the sounds around me were in my ears: the ticking of the hall clock, and the rain gently splattering in the puddles outside, and in the distance the rumble of Henry opening the door to the carriage-house, and the creak of a floorboard and the distinctively soft and quick footsteps of Elsie somewhere above me. And all at once I heard a wailing, unearthly sound, like a grief welling up from the chartless caverns of the earth; and it continued, and augmented, and to my astonishment I felt it coming from my own throat, while hot tears burned my eyes, and I could barely breathe; I felt Amelia embracing me, and I felt my head bury itself in her shoulder, while my whole frame shook with great racking sobs that came one after another, each one like a blow from a fist to my chest. Even now I cannot think of it without feeling the same burning in my eyes, the same constriction of my throat;—even now my sight is blurred with tears that come pouring out when I remember that day. Damn him! How can he do this to me, at the distance of so many years? Damn him! I was free at last from all his oafish prattle—free from the hideous embarrassment he caused me every time he opened his ignorant mouth—and all I could do was weep, wailing to the heavens, as if I had lost the one thing I loved most in the world, as if I could see nothing but despair; and even now, I think about that moment, and the tears pour out—— Damn him! Damn him to hell! I do not wish to continue this chapter.
My wedding, with other matters of interest.
My father awoke the next morning with what he called a little cough, though I would have called it a series of hideous hacking spasms—the result, he said, of a slight chill contracted while walking home with Viola the night before. It did not dampen his usual good cheer at all; it merely made him twice as annoying as usual at breakfast.
“I see you’ve shaved your moustache,” he said almost immediately after I sat down at the table. My father believed it was a dreadful sin against good manners to leave the obvious unstated.
“Amelia thought I might look better without it,” I replied.
“Well, I——” and here he was interrupted by another spasm of coughing. “I think you look very fine. What do you think, Viola? Doesn’t Galahad look fine?”
“I am happy to see less of his hair,” Viola replied, “but I am sorry to see more of his face.”
At this remark my father fell into another fit of coughing, which very conveniently spared him the trouble of having to take note of Viola’s ill temper.
Viola’s behavior toward me did not improve at all over the next few days. For my part, I cared not a whit, not even half a whit, whether my sister spoke a civil word to me or not; but Amelia, whose usual good spirits and affectionate nature had completely revived, persisted in imagining, and (what is far more absurd) hoping, that Viola could somehow be made her friend if only this little spell of petulance could be smoothed out. “We’re to be one family, after all,” Amelia explained, “and I’d like her to think of me as a sister. Surely there must be some way to show her that we regard her wedding as every bit the equal of ours.”
“Why don’t we just have a double wedding?” I grumbled with ill-disguised sarcasm. Amelia, however, did not penetrate the disguise.
“Oh, Galahad! What a marvelous suggestion! Do you really think she would agree? It would require such a deal of preparation in such a short time,—but it could be done.”
I was about to tell her that I had no intention of sharing my wedding with that human pestilence Viola, but at this point Amelia attacked me with kisses, and the battle was lost without a fight.
“You must ask your sister,” she reminded me when we parted; and I agreed that I should do so, since my agreement bought me a few more kisses.
In fact I had no desire to speak with my sister on any subject. It would have to be done, however, before I next saw Amelia. Moreover, the more I gave my mind over to thinking about it, the more it seemed as though I had hit accidentally on a very rational solution to my difficulties. Viola was certainly capable of keeping a grudge going for the rest of her life; and, while if anything it improved my own disposition not to have Viola speaking to me, Amelia would be happier if Viola were well disposed toward her. She seemed to regard it as a failure of her own that she could not secure Viola’s friendship. I had learned that Amelia’s happiness was linked directly to my own: the happier Amelia was, the more affectionate she was, and Amelia’s affection was a drug like opium to me, a necessity for which I was willing to make even the extreme sacrifice—I mean the sacrifice of speaking to my sister. As for the wedding itself, it was nothing to me whether we shared it with Viola and her clerk. I had no opinions on the wedding per se; it was the marriage I cared for. The wedding was useful only in that it would make possible that last degree of intimacy with Amelia that was currently denied to me;—or, rather, that I had denied myself, since there had been no unwillingness on Amelia’s part. The truly evil man must learn to curb his immediate desires in favor of that which will redound to his ultimate benefit, and I was willing to defer the complete possession of Amelia if it would assure my continued possession of both her and her father’s fortune.—Thus the wedding was but a means to that end; if it could be better accomplished in the presence of Viola, it was all the same to me.
The peace between Viola and Amelia that Amelia desired therefore became my object as well. After supper, I lost no time in seeking out Viola to speak with her alone. I found her in the front parlor reading the second volume of some silly three-volume novel.
“Viola,” I said, “I wish to speak to you.”
“H’m,” she replied without looking up from her book.
It was not the most promising beginning to our interview, but I persevered.
“I know that you have been worried that your wedding might somehow be overshadowed by mine,” I began, “and while I do not——”
“If you mean,” she interrupted, “that you think I have been disappointed to discover that my brother is the sort of man who cares nothing for the happiness of his family so long as his own is assured, and will gladly run roughshod over his own flesh and blood in his rush to attain his own selfish desires,—you are mistaken. It is no new discovery, and can therefore be no disappointment.”
Obviously she had turned over this speech and rehearsed it in her mind for days, if not weeks, while she waited for an opportunity to make use of it. In fact it was quite accurate: I was that sort of man. But it is one thing to be that sort of man, and another thing to appear to be that sort of man. It was meant as an insult, and as such it raised my hackles.
“Look here, Viola, there’s no reason for you to be so disagreeable when I’m trying to be conciliatory. I was talking with Amelia, and she thinks we should have our weddings together—a double wedding. She thinks it would bring us all together as a family. Frankly, she’s a good deal more interested in your happiness than I am at the moment, but I’ve agreed to the double wedding, if you can get it into your thick head that I’m trying to do you a good turn.”
Viola was actually silent for a moment, which is how I always like her best. When she did speak, all the harshness had gone from her tone.
“Galahad—you would really do that for me?”
“No, but I would do it for myself. This is the price at which I am willing to purchase a bit of peace in the family.”
“Galahad!” She leaped out of the chair and actually embraced me, for the first time since she had tried to crush the life out of me when I was a small child. “You are the sweetest and best brother in the world, and I love you with all my heart!”
With that unexpected demonstration out of the way, she ran out of the parlor and clattered noisily up the stairs.
Well, that was done, and it looked as though my success had been complete. I was about to retire early and get a good night’s sleep for once when my father found me in the hall.
“Galahad,” he said,—and then he began a fit of coughing that occupied him for a quarter-hour or so.
“Galahad,” he repeated when he had quite finished, “Viola has told me about the wedding. I know that you have not always been on good terms with your sister” (this was a simply extraordinary statement, since up to that moment I should have been prepared to wager a large sum on my father’s being entirely oblivious to the state of things between my sister and me), “and I know that your sister has been a little bit unreasonable lately” (this was even more astonishing), “but Viola has told me what you did for her. I’m very proud of you, Galahad. I know how difficult it must have been to persuade your Miss Goode to share her wedding day—in fact, I’m really very surprised that you accomplished it. You must have moved heaven and earth for your sister’s happiness, even after the way she treated you. It shows a rare spirit. You have grown into a fine Christian gentleman, and that, Galahad, is the best I could ever have hoped for from you.”
He clapped me on the back, and then he went to bed.
I recall this conversation vividly because I meditated on it for some considerable time afterward. It seemed to me that I had learned an invaluable secret. I had made a small concession on a matter that meant nothing to me, and as a result Amelia thought I was an angel; Viola was actually pleased with me for the first time in my memory; and my father was entirely persuaded that I was the paragon of oafish commercial virtue he had always hoped for in a son. What a cheap price bought so many treasures! I understood then the value of consulting the pleasure of others in small things of no consequence, so that the things of greater import would not be caught up in their petty displeasures; and I resolved thenceforth to adapt my wishes in small things to those of my family, so that my greater schemes might proceed without let or hindrance.
Oh, the things that had to be done to make two weddings happen on the same day! I am sure I never knew half of them; Viola and Amelia, both lacking the mothers who would ordinarily have been in charge of the arrangements, took everything in hand themselves, and showed every sign, in spite of their vast differences in temperament, of becoming fast friends in the process. I saw much less of Amelia, which was a disappointment; but, on the other hand, I saw much less of Viola, which was some compensation. Amelia insisted that the wedding must be at St. Andrew’s, to which Viola assented all the more readily because (as she informed me with insufferable pride) St. Andrews was the church where the better classes of weddings were performed. Indeed, through the whole planning of the wedding, Viola was torn between the two poles of giving unbridled expression to her glee at having been accepted into the upper stratum of Allegheny society, and affecting the air of having always belonged there. There were times when she seemed to be almost torn in two by these conflicting impulses. I sincerely enjoyed those occasions.
Amelia and I had some discussion about our living arrangements after the wedding,—though in the minds of Amelia and Viola such matters were clearly of secondary importance to the wedding itself. Amelia thought it would be most sensible if we began our married life in her father’s house, which was absurdly large for two people, and hardly less absurd for three. I did not need much persuading: the Goodes lived in a luxury that I had scarcely dreamt of before I met Amelia, and I could imagine nothing better than to become part of the Goode household. I was eagerly anticipating the delight of commanding an army of domestics instead of old Mrs. Ott, who used her deafness as a shield against any commands whatsoever. We also discussed the delicate topic of religion, but Amelia again easily persuaded me that it would be best if we both went to the same church, and of course the obvious choice was St. Andrew’s. It was nothing to me, after all, whether I followed the Methodist or the Episcopalian branch of Christian delusion.
The vicar at St. Andrew’s insisted on interrogating me on the subject of my Christian beliefs. Christian beliefs I had none; but clearly that was not an obstacle I was willing to place in the way of my temporal happiness. Here my otherwise useless education came to my assistance: I was able to give such a good account of my supposed beliefs that the man was sure I must have been raised on the Thirty-Nine Articles.
Thus I changed my religious affiliation on very practical considerations. There was no advantage to me in remaining in the little Methodist church my father attended; but there might be every advantage in joining the wealthy congregation at St. Andrew’s, where the best elements of Allegheny society gathered every Sunday to put on their pious faces and nod gravely at the commandments which they intended to spend the other six days of the week breaking. When my marriage to Amelia was accomplished, I must take my place among those best elements—indeed, very near their head—and therefore ought to be seen nodding as gravely as the rest of them.
To any young man who aspires to true evil, which is to say complete rationality, my advice is to cultivate a studious devotion to the forms and ceremonies of religion: for a reputation for exceptional piety opens every door. It is also of great utility to be seen performing such small acts of charity as cost little effort and make no difference in one’s overall wealth, but create an impression of generosity and Christian sympathy with one’s fellow creatures. Indeed, the truly evil man may find it to his advantage to make a display of Christian charity even at the cost of some considerable sacrifice, knowing that the temporary inconvenience will be more than balanced by the enhancement of his reputation and the concomitant enhancement of his prosperity in the long run.
One more thing happened during this interval, which is that Viola’s clerk came to work for Bousted & Son. Viola insisted that, if Camellia’s husband had a place in the firm, hers must as well. His name (I only now discover, reading back over these pages, that I have not mentioned it yet) was Colebrook; even now I sometimes have difficulty remembering it, because he does not make very much of an impression on me. I quickly discovered that he was much too timid to face patrons like the formidable Mrs. Rockland; but he wrote a very fair hand, and was intelligent enough to take over the correspondence with department stores and canvassing agents.
The time of the wedding finally arrived; but you, dear reader in my imagination, shall hear very little of the ceremony, for I myself recall very little of it. I remember my father’s coughing, and how I wished that he would be done with it;—but of course he never was, and he continued to make the most appalling din throughout. I remember how beautiful Amelia was in white silk, and the powerful scent of the orange blossoms she wore (they had come up from Florida in a special car), and how stiff my new blue coat was, and how long it took—hours, days, weeks—to walk the whole length of the aisle. I remember the sudden realization that struck me at the end of the ceremony, that Amelia now belonged to me entirely without qualification, and the difficulty of restraining myself so that our first kiss as man and wife was chaste enough for the occasion and the audience. Then there was an interminable dinner, during which, in obedience to the inflexible laws of etiquette, I saw so little of Amelia that I began to wonder whether I had only imagined the wedding. And then, after that interminable feast, where Amelia and Viola reigned as queens, and Colebrook (who looked alternately proud and terrified) and I seemed reduced to a page’s estate, there was an even more interminable wait.
We returned to the Goode mansion—my home now, I reflected with no little satisfaction—late in the evening, and Amelia’s father immediately bid us good-night, saying that he was very tired, and adding, with no apparent irony whatsoever, that Amelia and I must be looking forward to a good night’s sleep as well. He shuffled up the stairs, leaving me alone in the front parlor with my wife.
“I can assure you, Galahad,” she whispered to me while her father was still ascending the stairway, “that sleep is the very last thing on my mind.”
She gave me a light kiss, and then turned to watch until her father had vanished from sight.
“Now, Galahad,” she said in a low voice, “I want you to stay right here. Do not stir from this room until I send Elsie for you. It will be worth your while to be patient, I promise you.”
“Yes, of course, my love,” I replied, though secretly resenting every minute by which my enjoyment of the conjugal rights I had so laboriously earned was delayed.
She kissed me again. “Stay right here until Elsie comes for you,” she repeated; then she turned and floated out of the parlor and up the stairs with a soft rustle of silk.
There I was alone in her parlor—my parlor, I told myself, although it seemed only partly true. I looked around me at all the luxurious appointments: the marble, the mahogany, the stained glass, the Louis XIV this and that. I looked at them, and told myself, “This is mine, and this is mine, and this is mine”;—but in fact it all belonged to Colonel Goode, and would not really belong to me until he died and left it to his daughter. He was an old man, but in good health; unless some unexpected reverse hastened his demise, it might yet be many years before the Goode fortune was truly mine.
What was taking Amelia so long? It had already been—I looked at the clock on the mantel—at least three minutes. Well, it was some consolation to know that it had not been as long as I thought. My impatience had magnified those three minutes into half an hour. Surely Amelia must be as impatient as I; it was she, after all, who had been ready to consummate our marriage before the marriage had even been discussed. She could not keep me waiting very long. I picked up a book that was sitting on the side table: Carey’s Ancient Near East. The preface promised good fun with the Chaldees and the Assyrians and the Medes and Persians, but I was not able to read more than the first page and a half. I believe it took me half an hour to read that much. My mind was not with the book; it drifted off into thoughts of the delights I should soon enjoy—soon? Surely it must be soon, for I bitterly resented every tick of the clock. At last I abandoned my futile attempt at reading and simply sat. It had been more than half an hour, and still no Elsie had come. Had something terrible happened? Was Amelia even now lying insensible on a couch, struck down by some unknown and unsuspected ailment? No, of course not;—doubtless she was merely attending to some unnecessary details of her toilette—unnecessary because I could easily have ripped the last stitch of clothing from her in less than half a minute, and what more than that was necessary? The thought of doing so entertained me for another quarter-hour. Then, for a while longer, I simply watched the clock. It was just possible to perceive the movement of the minute hand against the dial. I observed it for a while; then I began to wonder how often the clock ticked. I waited until the minute hand exactly covered one of the marks on the dial, and then counted one hundred sixty ticks until it covered the next one. One hundred sixty ticks, or eighty full swings of the pendulum, per minute. It became absurdly important to me to ascertain this fact with certainty. I counted three more minutes with the same result. Yes, I had established beyond the possibility of doubt that the clock in the front parlor was regulated by a pendulum swinging eighty times a minute. I ought to take a survey of the other clocks in the house; perhaps I could write all their periods down in a memorandum-book and keep it with me, and then if someone should ask—perhaps one of the servants—“What is the period of the pendulum in this clock?”—why, then I could produce my memorandum-book, and——good God, would Elsie never come?
I had reached such a pitch of desperation by that time that I can hardly say why I did not break my promise and run up the stairs to see what could possibly be the matter with Amelia. Yet I was in that parlor—sitting, standing, pacing, muttering—for yet an hour after that. The thoughts that went through my mind in that time reflect no credit upon me, I am sure. I gave in to despair; I wondered again whether I had not merely imagined the wedding, or indeed my whole life. Was I not born in that parlor, and should I not die there?
——But at last Elsie did come, a wisp of a girl who could not bring herself to look straight at me.
“Miss Goode—that is, Mrs., uhm, Bousted—is ready,” she said in a voice so quiet and tremulous that I had to strain my ears to hear her. Then she turned away and took a few steps; and then she looked over her shoulder, and added, “If you could follow me, sir.”
So I followed her up the stairs—and it struck me that I had not been upstairs in the Goode house, my house, since I was first brought there after my heroic rescue of Amelia. At the top of the great staircase Elsie turned left into what seemed to me then to be an impossibly long hall, a hall that might have engulfed our entire Beech-street house. She glanced backwards to ascertain that I was still following her; but as soon as her eyes met mine she turned back abruptly and tripped ahead at a faster pace, as if I were some object of supernatural terror. I matched my pace to hers, striding briskly through the hall, past innumerable doors (no more than a dozen, but to my eyes the hall seemed infinite), until at last we reached the end of the hall, with a window before us and doors to the left and right.
For a moment—an interminable moment—Elsie simply stood facing the window. Then at last she turned to face me, with the most ghastly pale countenance I have ever seen on a living woman. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words proceeded from her lips; then all at once she turned deep rose, pointed to the door on the left hand, and almost pushed me out of the way as she suddenly dashed off and quite literally ran back down the hall.
After that performance, I certainly did not know what to expect behind the door. I knocked lightly, and then gently turned the knob. The door opened silently on perfectly oiled hinges.
The far wall was hung with deep red curtains, and in the middle of the room was a couch draped profusely in red velvet; and on the couch, La Belle Anglaise. Every fold of the drapery, every line of the furniture in the painting had been reproduced as accurately as lay within the power of feminine industry. And Amelia herself, the central figure in the composition, recumbent, her every limb exactly as in the picture—oh! reader, there are not words in our poor language to describe the vision that met my eyes.
“Lock the door,” she said with an inviting smile; and I did lock it.
The Trouble with Snyder.
She was facing me, but looking at my chest rather than my face; which I’m sure was just as well, since she would have seen I know not what confused and conflicting thoughts parading across it.
Receiving no response from me, she continued in a low voice, speaking rather to my cravat than to me. “I didn’t know him as Snyder—he called himself Elmer Sanders. I was a foolish girl of nineteen; he was a charming man; he made me believe he was—what he was not. I don’t know what to say, Galahad; I don’t know what to think. I never thought I should see him again at all, and now to find him among your friends! What will you think of me?”
“What I have always thought,” I said softly. “I think you have the purest and noblest heart in the world, and I——”
“But I hate him!” she sobbed, and she buried her face in my chest. Another strolling couple glanced at us, but looked away again promptly. I held Amelia against me, feeling quite helpless and conspicuous, and not a little confused. What did Amelia want from me? Did she want simple reassurance that I still loved her? Did she want me to share her hatred of Snyder?
I gave her some time to sob quietly while I composed my reply. It was necessary to tread carefully, while at the same time appearing to speak from the heart.
“Darling,” I began after a minute or two, “I must confess to feeling a little bit the same way. A man who could hurt you, even in the slightest degree, for the sake of his own selfish pleasure—he must be something less than human. It’s his confounded drinking! Miss Snyder has told me how the liquor changes her brother—how he becomes almost a different man under its influence. Sober, he seems a model of the decent gentleman; but drunk, he is a terror to his own sister. I own frankly that I don’t know what I ought to do now.”
“I don’t know either,” Amelia said, calmer now. “There was a time when men would fight duels over such things.”
“Fortunately those days are long past,” I put in hastily; and then, wondering whether I might have said the wrong thing, I added just as hastily, “though you know, my love, that I’d gladly fight for you and die for you if——”
“Oh no! I know you are far too good and pure to give or accept a challenge, and I’d never let you do it for the world.”
That was certainly a relief. If it became necessary to kill Snyder, I had much rather it were accomplished by simple assassination than by the absurd farce of another duel.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she continued. “There is nothing you can do—nothing you ought to do. Only—only it was such a shock to find that you knew him.”
She had absolved me, so to speak, of any duty to do anything about that despicable cad Snyder. Yet I could tell that I was not really absolved. What she had said was what reason had told her to say, but in her heart she wanted me to do something—I’m sure she knew not what. I could still feel that hardness in her arm; and when she kissed me, it was a perfunctory kiss such as a sister might give her brother—at least a sister who was moderately fond of her brother, for rumor says that such things do exist in the world. Thus we parted, with none of those delightful intimacies she had permitted me since she had accepted my proposal. Damn that Snyder! He really did deserve to die,—not for taking Amelia’s virtue, which after all any man with the same opportunity would have done, but for depriving me of a single moment’s pleasure with Amelia.
That evening I was once again alone after supper, my father having once again taken Viola to Camellia’s house to speak of weddings. There was no need for me to go, since (as my father informed me) Camellia now refused to speak to me as well, the two sisters having resolved to form a perfect wall of silence against me. I could sit in silence more comfortably at home; so I took a chair in the front parlor and read a magazine of some sort. And, just as had happened the last time, there was the most appalling pounding at the door.
It must be Snyder, drunk again, and come to invite me to another duel. I stood up, imagining all the ways I might dispatch him more efficiently than by following him to the warehouse district. At least if he happened to be carrying a small case, I should be careful to relieve him of it at once. More annoyed than afraid, I yanked open the door—and found Gertrude waiting behind it.
She and her brother must have learned the art of thunderous knocking at the same school. In every other respect they could hardly have been more different—Snyder a rake and drunkard and his sister sober and virtuous. For the moment, however, she was more agitated than I had ever seen her. She stepped through the door without waiting for me to speak.
“Newman, I—I need you,” she said. She was out of breath, as if she had been walking very briskly, or even running.
“Why, Miss Snyder, what is the matter?” I asked with my best tone of surprise and concern.
“It’s Edward,” she replied; then she seemed to search for words. “He’s—tried to kill himself.”
Tried—but evidently not succeeded. For a moment I cursed my ill fortune. How many difficulties would have been resolved if only Snyder could have succeeded in his endeavor! But no—apparently the man was such a rotten shot that he could not hit his own head, to say nothing of mine. What was done, however, could not be undone: he had been prevented from killing himself, and now he was not dead. It remained merely to see what could be made of this new development. What would Baucher do in like circumstances? Surely he would contrive to turn this unexpected interruption to his advantage. I must follow this affair to its conclusion, and see what comes of it. Perhaps, if nothing else, it could give me an opportunity to assassinate Snyder privately.
“Is he badly hurt?” I asked, my voice greasy with concern.
“No—I wrested the pistol out of his hand. He was very drunk. But he had prepared this note, and—if it means what I think—oh! Newman, I’m so very sorry!”
I took the paper she handed me—a sheet of Bousted’s Grade 6, I noted without thinking about it. The appalling scrawl was almost illegible, but I could make out enough to tell that it was seeing Amelia and me that had put him in mind to extinguish his own life. He wrote that he had dishonored and betrayed the truest friend he ever had, and included enough detail to make it clear, to anyone who knew me, both that I was the friend and that Amelia’s honor was the loss I had suffered. He was not only a cad but also a fool: surely any moderately intelligent man would see that, while virginity can be lost in secret, honor can be lost only by public exposure, such as—for example—the discovery of a detailed confession in a suicide note.
Gertrude gave me some time to read, but not very much, before she began speaking again.
“Edward has behaved very badly—worse than I thought him capable of—and I can only imagine what you must think of him. But I’ve come here to ask for what I’ve no right to ask—that you should forgive him, and that you should tell him so. Otherwise,—oh! Newman, he might try again! And who knows whether I’d be able to stop him the next time? You must wish him dead—but I’ve come to beg for his life, because I really do believe that his life hangs on your word at this moment.”
“My dear Miss Snyder,” I replied in a soft and soothing tone, “I have already forgiven your brother.”
This statement seemed to mollify or perhaps even stun her. My mind was working very hard to discover the course that would be truly evil, which is to say advantageous. Killing Snyder was quite obviously out of the question: if he were to die in otherwise unexplained circumstances, suspicion would naturally light on me, and Amelia’s reputation would be ruined, which would ruin my own even if I were not convicted of murder. There remained, however, the possibility of removing once and for all the cloud that hung over Amelia, and at the same time placing the Snyders, brother and sister, forever in my debt, which could not but be useful to me in the long run. I may interpolate here a short observation: it has been my invariable experience that keeping one’s acquaintances in one’s debt will always prove advantageous in the end. Indeed, I may say that it is one of the things that distinguish the truly scientific evildoer from the mere bounder, who takes what he desires at the present moment without a thought to his own future advantage.—But enough digression. As Gertrude was silent for more than the usual time, I began again.
“I have already forgiven your brother, and his confession is no new thing to me. Amelia, who is as truthful as she is good-hearted, told me all before she consented to become my wife.”
“Oh—oh, Newman, could you tell him that? If he hears it from your lips, it may be that he will feel—”
“Of course, Gertrude. We must go to him at once.” And immediately I reached for my overcoat.
The walk to the Snyders’ house gave me a little time to think. Gertrude talked most of the way, generally repeating expressions of regret for her brother’s conduct, and returning often to the subject of his drinking, which I agreed was the root of all his troubles. It was also the root of more than one of mine. If he had not been drinking, I should never have risked my life in a duel; if he had not been drinking, either he would not have attempted to take his own life or he would not have failed so miserably in the attempt; and in either case I should not have been roused from my comfortable arm-chair by Gertrude’s violent pounding on the door. Clearly it would be to my advantage if he could be induced to stop drinking. It was also what Gertrude desired most, and even her brother might desire it as well in his sober moments.
I found Snyder prostrate on the divan in the little parlor in his house. He did not see me at first, since his head was buried in the cushions.
“Edward,” his sister called quietly, but he did not stir. “Edward!” she repeated, this time with the tone and volume of a drill sergeant—something I had never heard from her before, but doubtless a tone that belongs to sisters by virtue of their office.
“What?” he demanded, or rather not so much demanded as groaned.
“Mr. Bousted is here to see you,” Gertrude answered in her ordinary melodious voice.
Snyder slowly lifted his head and turned his gaze on me. It seemed to take his eyes some time to resolve what they were seeing; then, slowly, he opened his mouth and spoke, quietly but distinctly.
“If you’ve come to kill me, maybe you’ll have better luck than I had.”
“Don’t be absurd, Snyder,” I replied. “I have no intention of killing you.”
“Why not?” he demanded with sudden force. “Gertrude’s told you everything—I know she has. But how was I to know, Bousted? Of all the girls in the world, how was I to know you’d—I mean, Bousted, how was I to know?”
“Snyder,” I replied, “you’ve been a cad, but you know it, and I’m sure that’s half the battle. I didn’t learn about what you did from your sister; I learned it from Amelia, weeks ago, and I’ve had time to forgive you.”
“You mean you’ve had time to grow indifferent,” Snyder said. “I know I can’t be forgiven.” He lay back on the divan in a despondent attitude: it seems that one common effect of alcoholic spirits is to make the drinker susceptible to fits of stage melodrama.
I turned to his sister. “Gertrude, could you please leave us for a little while? I think your brother could speak a little more freely to me alone.”
Gertrude nodded and silently left the room. I waited until she had pulled the door shut and presumably walked away before continuing along the line of attack I had laid out for myself on the walk over.
“Look here, Snyder, are you a Christian?”
He looked at me as if he thought I might have meant something else. “What a question! Of course I’m a Christian.”
“I don’t believe you are,” I responded. “A Christian wouldn’t put himself in such a ridiculous position. If you really did believe in a just Judge, would you consider the appalling crime of suicide even for a moment? Would you leave your sister unprotected, to be a witness against you on the last day?”
“But I am a Christian,” Snyder objected feebly. “It’s just that—it’s just that I behaved so badly, and it was you…”
“Yes, of course you’ve behaved badly, and that’s the point. You have sinned, as every man does. Perhaps you’ve sinned more than most. Well, what of it? Would you deny yourself time for repentance? Would you go now to the absolute certainty of eternal damnation? Or would you not rather repent and live, and look forward to the equal certainty of heaven?—Yes, I say equal certainty, for heaven is promised to sinners, not to the perfect. No man is perfect. St. Paul was a murderer; St. Peter denied Christ three times. You know all these things, Snyder, but you forget them when you drink.”
“I suppose that’s true,” he agreed in a thin voice.
“It’s the confounded drinking that makes you act such a fool,” I continued. “You are not a drunkard. You can live for days without a drop of liquor. There are men—God have mercy on them—who can’t pass a day without resorting to spirits, but you’re not one of them. Then why do you indulge? It brings you no joy, but only unbounded misery—a misery that involves your sister, whom I know you love, in its web, and your friends as well. Can it be long before it begins to affect your work?”
Here I was silent to give him a chance to reply, and myself a chance to think of a few more specious arguments to hurl at him. Snyder was silent, too, with his hands over his eyes. When he did speak at last, it was in a very weak voice, so full of despair that, had he not already caused me so many inconveniences, I might almost have been inclined to pity him. “But I don’t know what to do, Bousted. I just don’t know.”
I did not know what to do, either; but I had at least enough imagination to invent something that a temperance preacher might have told him. “Well, first you must pray—pray for strength and courage. Without God’s help, you can do nothing; but with God’s help, there is nothing you cannot do.” Was that not a pretty sentence? I might well have made a good temperance preacher myself. After terrifying Snyder with visions of an imaginary hell, and promising him the bliss of an equally imaginary heaven, I had invested my words with something like God’s own authority over his superstitious little mind. Then I arrived at my real goal, which was this: “Then you must go to Amelia and beg her forgiveness.”
This at least made him look up at me. “I can’t do that, Bousted—she’d never forgive me, and I can’t face her.”
“Her forgiveness will not be easy to obtain,” I agreed, “but you can earn it if you can show that you have struck at the root of all your sins—that you have pledged not to drink any more, and that you have taken effective steps to hold yourself to that pledge.”
It was a marvel to watch the hope spreading across his face. The despair was melting, or at least it was thawing a little. “Yes,” he said.—“You’re right, Bousted. I don’t have to drink. There’s no reason for it. It doesn’t bring me happiness. Only misery. Well, sir, from now on, no more misery for mine. I’ll take the pledge. I’ll be a new man. I’ll do it right now. Bring Gertrude in here. I want her to hear this.”
And that was how I cured Snyder of his drinking. He swore in front of Gertrude and me that he would never touch liquor again. He wrote it on a sheet of Bousted’s Grade 6 and signed his name at the bottom. And then he announced, quite sensibly in his condition, that he was going to bed.
“Newman,” Gertrude said when he had gone upstairs, “you are a marvel. I’ve tried for so many years to accomplish what you’ve done in one evening. How did you do it? What did you say to him?”
“Only a few things about his Christian duty,” I replied with a great show of modesty. “Your brother is a good man, and a good Christian, and he needs only to be reminded once in a while of the truths of the Christian religion.” This was all true as far as it went: it was apparently quite an easy thing to terrify the man with the myths of hell he had imbibed in childhood. I might have had equal success by telling him that a hideous green bogeyman would tear him to pieces if he did not abjure spirits.
“Well,” Gertrude replied, “I don’t know whether he will abide by his oath, but to bring him to swear it was more than I could ever do. You are a good and kind man, and—and Miss Goode is very fortunate that you have a forgiving nature.”
She spoke Amelia’s name with just a shade of involuntary contempt. Evidently her knowledge of Amelia’s indiscretion had evaporated her former admiration and envy. I was confident that Gertrude could never be guilty of such an indiscretion. She had not Amelia’s passionate nature. For the same reason, I was certain that Gertrude could never kiss me the way Amelia did. I much preferred the sinner to the saint; I found it wonderfully easy to dispense with Amelia’s purity.
“You must remind your brother that he has yet one more obligation,” I told her. “My forgiveness he has—it is my duty as a Christian—but he has promised to ask Amelia’s, and I know his conscience will burden him until he has done so.”
“You are a marvel, Newman,” she repeated with one of her enigmatic smiles.
I have described the farcical events of this evening in some detail because it was in the course of confronting Snyder that I discovered an important principle in the pursuit of evil—a discovery that pleased me all the more because I had made it myself, without the explicit assistance of Baucher. Briefly stated, it is this: The appearance of piety can be of great use in promoting an evil scheme. In this case, I was able to make use of Snyder’s superstitious attachment to Christian mythology to bring about the result I desired, but I should not have been able to do so had I not appeared to be subject to an equal or greater superstition. By some mere instinct I had already possessed some dim awareness of this truth: I had continued to attend my father’s church, with every appearance of devotion, long after I had discovered the absurdity of the Christian religion, knowing that my reputation as a churchgoer elevated my reputation as a stationer. Now, however, the thing appeared to me for the first time in the clear light of day as a definite proposition.
Some delicate diplomacy was required in order to bring Amelia and Snyder together for the little drama I wished to arrange. Amelia was not at all eager to see the man who had defiled her; she recognized that I had done a very good thing for Snyder and his sister, and she insisted that she understood the necessity, as I had explained it, of his expressing his remorse in a personal interview;—“but it’s hard, Galahad,” she said on more than one occasion. “He will ask for my forgiveness, and I don’t know whether I can give it. I have not your virtue, darling. Perhaps I am positively wicked.”
I always assured her that she was not wicked in the least, but I was somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed from there.
In the event, however, it was Amelia who proceeded. “I wish to pay a visit to Mr. Snyder,” she said one evening;—and it was clear that those few words had cost her a great deal of effort.
“I will arrange it,” I said; and there was no more to be said on that subject. But it did seem as though a weight had been lifted from her. She was more affectionate with me than she had been since her encounter with Snyder. It is a curious fact that deciding to do a thing can have the same effect on the mind as actually doing the thing. It is not rational, but men and women are not commonly rational; the rational man, which is to say the evil man, observes this fact and turns it to his advantage.
A few evenings later we paid a call, Amelia and I, on Mr. Snyder and his sister. After a few preliminary remarks from me, Snyder abased himself in a hideously undignified fashion, but one that pleased Amelia immensely by allowing her to assume an air of Godlike mercy and forbearance. We parted from the Snyders after both brother and sister had expressed their profound gratitude to me for helping Mr. Snyder to see the truth of Christian principles and their application to his drinking, and we mounted Amelia’s carriage, with the preternaturally discreet Henry as our pilot.
“Oh, Galahad!” Amelia exclaimed as soon as the door was closed. “You were so right—so wise! I do feel a thousand times better! It’s as if the clouds had parted and I saw the sun for the first time in—in ages!”
“I’m very glad,” I responded. “I know you’ve done Mr. Snyder much good—more, perhaps, than he deserves, but our God desires mercy, not justice.” Our God is something of an imbecile, I thought to myself.
“Galahad, my darling, you’re a good man, but you’re more than that: you’re the cause of goodness in others. I should never have forgiven Mr. Snyder—and yet how well I feel for having done it! And you have forgiven me as well, even though——”
I hastened to interrupt her. “In you, dearest Amelia, there is nothing to forgive.”
She smiled brightly. “And you really do believe that, don’t you? Oh, darling, you deserve a saint for a wife, but when I’m your wife I’ll try every day to make you glad you married a sinner!”
She embraced me, and we did not find it necessary to speak again until Henry stopped the carriage in front of my house on Beech-street.
We kissed one last time, and then Amelia seemed to be examining me with such concentration that I felt compelled to ask her, “What do you see?”
“I was thinking that you might look better clean-shaven,” Amelia answered, “the way I first saw you.”
I did not wait until the morning: the moustache was gone within half an hour.