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.