How I disposed of my pestilential sister Viola, and how I prevented my friend Mr. Snyder from behaving as a gentleman.
It did not take my sister Viola a long time to discover that there had been a definite break between Gertrude and me. I told her as much of the history of our parting as was suitable for her to hear: viz., that Gertrude had confessed to loving another, and that I of course had acted the noble part and refused to stand in the way of her happiness. Gertrude certainly believed that version of the story, and why should not Viola believe it as well?
She did believe it, since it fitted neatly with her prevailing assumption that her brother was of no account in the world. “My poor brother,” she said when I had related my sad tale. “Your Gertrude found a better man—one of the beggars on Liberty-street, perhaps, or a ragpicker from the Point. It is very fortunate for her, of course, that she discovered her mistake in time. But how sad for you to lose the only girl who would even look at you! You must be broken-hearted.”
Thus she alternated between congratulations to Gertrude on her fortunate escape from my clutches and the most nauseatingly saccharine and ironical expressions of sympathy for my disappointment. Viola had a way of blighting even my triumphs;—and in this case she had all the more opportunity to be a blight, since my very triumph in ridding myself so easily of Gertrude must be presented to the rest of the world as a bitter defeat.
Not for the first time I considered how much better my life might be without Viola than with her. But how to be rid of her? Murder might be simple and direct, but as an answer to my difficulties it seemed to present too many difficulties of its own. I had read in various novels of poisons that could not be detected, but as a general principle it looks odd if a young person suddenly falls dead when up to that moment she has been as healthy as an ox—an animal with which Viola shared divers other attributes as well.
No, the only means that presented itself to my attention of ridding myself of Viola was the same one by which I had eliminated Camellia. Some besotted oaf must marry her and take her away with him.
Where does one find besotted oafs? It has been my experience that there is no sister so loathsome but that some fool will think her a perfect angel. One has merely to be observant. In the case of Viola, I recalled the timid, if not positively ghostly, clerk across Wood-street from our store. Something might be made of him, though it might take a crowbar, or blasting-powder, to set him in motion.
In the mean time, something must be done about Amelia. I considered what I might do and how I might do it, when lo! I came home and discovered that it had all been done for me. Viola was waving a card almost in my face.
“An invitation!” she almost sang. “An invitation to a ball! At the home of Colonel Goode and his daughter!”
She swirled around as if she were waltzing, making me cringe when I thought of the damage she would do to her partner’s feet.
“First-rate!” my father responded with a tooth-baring smile. “I can see you’re happy about it.”
“It’s the Goodes’ ball!” she crowed as she continued to swirl through the entry. I braced the hall-tree in anticipation of a collision as she swept past it. “Only the very best families of Allegheny go to the Goodes’ ball! Oh, and you’re invited, too. I must have a new gown!”
Indeed the entire family had been honored with this invitation, but of course Viola saw it as her very own triumph, an acknowledgment, tardy but welcome, that society had at last recognized her worth. That her new position was owed entirely to me in every possible way seemed not to have occurred to her. On the contrary, it was quite apparent to her that she had achieved her elevation on her own merits;—an accomplishment made all the more admirable for having been achieved in spite of her being saddled with a brother like me.
At any rate, she was triumphant, and must have not only a new gown for the occasion, with a bustle of absurd if not positively dangerous dimensions, but also—as she thought more about it—new shoes, new gloves, and everything else she could think of to spend money on. For that reason, she rode into town with us the next morning, intending to pay visits to all the purveyors of feminine equipment on Wood-street. And when we reached our store, there was that clerk across the street staring out the window at Viola; nor did I fail to note her secret smile when she briefly met his gaze. I took the opportunity to ask Viola directly whether she knew that young clerk across the street; she answered in a very quiet voice that she did not, and blushed the most violent shade of purple.
Soon Viola set off about her business, and our own store filled up with the usual assortment of schoolmarms and shopkeepers’ wives. My own mind, though I tended to the customers with my usual assiduity, was filled with thoughts of Amelia. I imagined myself taking her aside at some opportune moment during the ball and pouring out my heart to her; and, of course, in my imagination she reciprocated my affection, and, after some reluctance, accepted a chaste kiss which promised more fervent expressions of affection to come. How my imagination differed from the reality you shall see soon enough; but it was a very pretty picture I painted for myself, and it kept the greater part of my mind occupied, while the lesser part examined one dreadful scrawl after another.
I happened to look up after sending one difficult matron on her way with a set of Grade 3 and a dozen pens to match, and by merest chance I saw a quite unexpected sight. It had been a grey day all morning, but just after noon the sun began to appear, and by about two it was shining with as much force as it could muster so late in the year on the storefronts on the opposite side of the street. In the one directly across from us a patch of sunlight made part of the interior clearly visible, and with widening eyes I beheld my own sister in earnest conference with the clerk. It was certainly not one of the stops in her expedition to conquer the purveyors of finery and frippery; this store sold lamps and lamp-oil. She could have only one reason for being there.
Now, I might simply have allowed nature to take its course, but nature had not the desperate desire that I had to see Viola married as soon as possible. At that moment I decided that I must intervene and give nature a helpful shove.
The scheme I contemplated was cruel, deceptive, and altogether wicked; but my conscience was learning to bow to my will, and the wickedness of it was now rather an attraction than otherwise. For the rest of the day, even as I tended to the customers, I formed in my mind the exact words I would use, so that, by the time we had ushered out the last schoolmarm and closed up the store, I had already played out the scene a dozen times in my imagination.
I sent my father, my sister, and Bradley off with the explanation that I had a few things I wished to arrange, and would follow them on a later car. They left, my father and Bradley both laden with bundles enough to outfit a regiment of Violas, and Viola between them carrying nothing but her umbrella. As soon as they were on the car and out of sight, I locked up the store and marched across the street, where I pushed my way through the lamp-dealer’s door just as the young clerk was about to lock it.
“I’m sorry to say we’re closed for——”
I cut him off. “I have no interest in lamp oil,” I told him. “I came to speak to you personally.”
“To me? I’m afraid I don’t——”
“Look here, man, I don’t have time to shilly-shally, nor would I if I could. I came to find out what the devil is going on between you and my sister.” Here I looked him straight in the eye, and moved close enough that he could feel my breath on his face. I had read a novel once—I have no other memory of it now—in which the hero was much intimidated by feeling the villain’s breath upon his face, and it was necessary that I should intimidate this fellow.
I believe I created the desired impression. “Your sister?” the man croaked out, looking altogether like a thief caught robbing the poor-box.
“I don’t know what your intentions are toward Viola,” I continued, “and to be quite frank with you I was ready to snap you in two.” By this time he had his back against the counter and was perilously close to knocking over three or four bottles of whale-oil. “My sister, however, seems to be fond of you,—with what reason I am sure I cannot say,—and my sister, sir, means the world to me. I cannot bear to see her unhappy.”
At this I stood up—for he had been leaning backward until his back was nearly flat on the counter, and I had been lowering over him—and stepped back a little to give him a sudden sensation of release. “So you are very fortunate,” I continued. “in that, for the sake of my sister’s happiness, I have decided not to snap you in two,—provided that your intentions are honorable.”
“Oh, of course——they——I mean to say that I——”
“And by ‘honorable,’” I added, interrupting his stammered assurances, “I mean that she must have received a proposal of marriage by no later than closing-time to-morrow. If she has not, I shall be forced to assume that you had no other intention than to trifle with a young girl’s affections.” I did my best to breathe on his face again for a moment before adding, “—which I am certain is not the case. There should, therefore, be no difficulty whatsoever about our arrangement.”
“Oh, none whatsoever,” he agreed, with a sickeningly forced smile.
“Splendid,” I said with an equally forced smile. “And one more thing: it is imperative that you say nothing to my sister of my visit here. If she supposed that your asking for her hand proceeded from any other motive than pure love for her, it would naturally break her heart.” I spoke the words “break her heart” in such a way as to remind him that I stood ready to avenge any unhappiness he might cause my sister.
“I understand perfectly,” he assured me.
“Very good.” I grasped his limp hand and shook it heartily. “Then I look forward to congratulating you both to-morrow afternoon.” And I turned and left the store.
How delightful it would be to feel as confident as I had endeavored to appear during this interview! The clerk—I have called him “young,” but in fact he was several years older than I was—was not a small man: slender, but quite tall, with a shape rather like that of a heron. If I had misjudged his character, the encounter might have gone very badly for me. Even as I left the front door of his store, I wondered whether, once the direct intimidation of my presence was removed, he might reconsider his promise. I should not know until the morrow.
Meanwhile I had an evening to get through with my father and my sister. Without Camellia in the house, poor Viola was forced to regale her two male relations with tales of bargains in silks. I noted that she was silent with regard to the lamp-dealer’s store, and I could not resist the opportunity to watch her turn purple again.
“I wonder you didn’t remember to pick up some lamp-oil while you were running up and down Wood-street,” I said with studied diffidence. “I don’t think we have more than a week’s worth left. Perhaps if you go shopping again to-morrow——”
“I certainly can’t carry a gallon of whale-oil,” she said crossly. “It must weigh a hundred pounds. You might as well ask me to carry the whale.” But I noted with satisfaction that her face had achieved the desired purple shade.
That evening, when I retired to my own bedroom, I spent some time composing a letter to Amelia; but, after crumpling five or six sheets successively, I gave up the attempt, put out the lamp, and turned down the gas. I had been paralyzed by the idea that whatever I wrote to Amelia must be perfect of its type, and each of my attempts fell short of perfection. I mention these failed letters only to illustrate the agitated state of my mind at the time.
It does not amuse me to prolong the narration of Viola’s abbreviated courtship. It is enough to say that, the next afternoon, she appeared with her clerk beside her, who very nearly choked himself before he succeeded in asking my father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. When the question was finally posed, I saw my father hesitate for an instant; but I rushed forward to congratulate both Viola and her clerk. My father, caught up in the general good cheer, readily gave the assent I had already taken for granted, and the betrothal was accomplished.
It was certainly a happy day for me;—the more so because, when we all came home, a letter from Amelia was waiting for me. Viola was too full of her own triumph even to notice that I had received a letter, and immediately after supper she went out to confer with Camellia on the wedding plans, my father accompanying her so that she would not have to walk alone in the dark. That left me alone to read the letter from Amelia; and I had just opened and unfolded it when there came a most horrendous pounding at the door.
An ordinary knock I might have left for Mrs. Ott to answer or not, according to whether she affected to hear it, but this pummeling was so insistent, so incessant, that I felt sure it must betoken some desperate emergency. I leaped from my chair in the front parlor and strode quickly to the entry, where I flung the door open and stepped aside as my old friend Snyder fell into the room.
He did not fall flat on his face, but he avoided that catastrophe only by a wonderfully intricate series of steps that a French dancing-master would have envied. He braced himself on the settle, set down a small case he was carrying, and recovered himself for a moment. Then he whipped around to face me.
“Bousted!” he shouted, much too loud, so that he seemed to be taken aback by the sound himself. He lowered his voice, but not by very much, and tried the experiment again. “Bousted! You have traffled with my sister’s afflictions!” He stopped and thought about that for a moment, but appeared to conclude that he had made his point, and continued. “You are a scad and a coundrel—— a skid and a candle! You are also a scad. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Now, Snyder,” I began—although it was a foolish endeavor trying to reason with a man in his state—“you know that your sister was the one who rejected——”
“She’s gone back to that Friedrich or Hiffman or what-have-you, that blasted Dutch fellow! Do you think I’m sooch a foal as to behave—I mean believe; of course I mean believe; did you think I didn’t mean believe? Of course I meant believe. But I don’t believe it. That’s the point.”
He turned away muttering.
“Believe what?” I asked at last.
“That she would pick a fat Dutchman over you!” He attempted to fix me with a steely eye, though not with a great deal of success. “Of course she told me it was her choice—she is the dearest, sweetest girl in the world, and she would rather fling hersilf from a bredge than say anything against you. But I say through her faceed!”
“I’m sure that if we sit down and talk for a little while, we can——”
“A pilpable lay!—I mean a lie; of course I mean a lie. Why do you always twist everything I say? I said it was a lay, and I meant it was a lay. I mean a lie. There you are again, twisting my words!”
“I’m sure you know that I never——”
“Are you calling me a layer? Of course you are, because you are not a generalmin.” He reached behind him and fumbled on the settle, at last finding the little case he had brought. “So I will thank you to take a walk with me down to the river.”
He opened the case to reveal a pair of pistols.
This alarming development put me in a very conciliatory mood. I had no particular wish to shoot Snyder, and I had a very particular aversion to being shot myself. “I’m certain we can come to some rational agreement,” I said in my calmest tone.
“Rational?” he sputtered. “What has raisin to do with a woman’s honor?” He snatched one of the pistols from the case and pointed it at me. “You will come with me to the river,” he said very sternly, “or I will shoot you here.”
If those were his conditions, then it seemed far the wiser course to accompany him to the river; and so I agreed.
Here I cannot forbear remarking what fools our sense of honor makes us. Here was Snyder, a man who, in his inebriated state, was far more likely to fall into a ditch than to hit anything with a bullet; yet he was challenging me—a man who had not touched a drop of spirits since that evening when I met Snyder in the saloon on Ohio-street. How did he know that I was not a crack shot? In fact I had never discharged a pistol in my life, but he had no means of knowing that.
Our walk to the river was one of the strangest experiences of my young life. It was not yet particularly late; but it was dark and chilly, and the streets through which we walked were almost deserted. We proceeded in almost complete silence, though all the way my mind was filled with the most absurd thoughts. I desperately wished to think of some way to avoid this ordeal, but my mind gave all its attention to ridiculous irrelevancies. If this was to be a proper duel, should there not be seconds? If I did kill Snyder, whom would I inform? Is there some sort of city department or private service charged with collecting the corpses of defeated duelists? I wondered all these things, yet I spoke not a word to Snyder. His threatening me with immediate annihilation had made me wonderfully silent, even though he had long since replaced the pistol in the case.
Snyder’s face maintained an expression of perfect steadiness and deadly determination. The rest of him, on the other hand, was not steady at all; and about halfway to the river, as we were passing the rope-works, he suddenly thrust the pistol-case into my hand with a garbled “Hold this,” and then fell to the ground and vomited in the gutter.
He remained for some time in the attitude of a worshiper supplicating the gutter-gods; and all at once my brain, which had hitherto been useless to me, formed a delightfully simple scheme; a very wicked scheme—perhaps too wicked. I decided to remove the bullet from one of the guns, so that I should be certain not to be hit. It would, perhaps, have been more virtuous to have removed the bullets from both, at once saving Snyder from his drunken folly and myself from all danger;—except that Snyder’s pointing a pistol at me had made a deep impression upon my imagination, and at the moment I regarded the man as my deadly enemy, whom it would be safer to kill at once than to leave alive to plot a more effective attack. What, after all, could I do if Snyder discovered my stratagem?—and was he not bound to discover it, even in his present state, when both pistols failed to fire? No, my own course might be wicked, but it was the most rational. The safest thing was to kill Snyder.
At any rate, I did remove the bullet from the lower pistol; at least I removed something from it, which I assumed must be a bullet, although it was hellishly dark, and I had only the scantiest theoretical knowledge of such weapons as these. Then I stood, the pistol case in one hand, the other hand absently twirling my moustache, until Snyder was ready to continue.
When Snyder had emptied himself sufficiently, he laboriously resumed an upright stance and rather roughly took back the pistol-case, as if his vomiting were one more fault to be added to the account of resentments he kept against me. At length we reached a deserted spot by the river, a long cobblestone plaza where the gaslight was at least sufficient to make out the outline of a man. Here, still in complete silence, Snyder opened the case, and I, after making a show of indecision, chose the upper pistol.
To this day I cannot explain what happened next. Perhaps I chose the wrong pistol, in spite of my care; perhaps I had misjudged what I was doing earlier in the dark by the rope works; perhaps any number of perhapses. When Snyder announced “Ten paces” and counted them off—he counted very slowly and counted eight twice—I turned, raised my arm, and pulled the trigger. I felt nothing in my hand, but at about the same time there was a loud report, and my hat flew off my head.
Human nature is an unaccountable thing. Certainly one of the great arguments in favor of a life of evil, which is to say of rational self-interest, is that a life devoted to good involves a man in a mass of ridiculous contradictions. No sooner had the bullet taken my hat off—leaving my head quite unharmed, I hasten to assure you, my dear trembling reader—than Snyder was running toward me, demanding to know whether I was “all right,” and protesting that he would rather die than harm a hair on my head. He fell on the ground before me and quite literally embraced my knees, doubtless to the great detriment of his trousers, and repeated something over and over, which I was eventually able to interpret as “You didn’t fire.”
“No,” I told him, making a very advantageous use of the truth, “I had removed the bullet from the gun. I did not expect that you would be able in your state to come as close as you did to hitting me; but, for my part, I am sure that death would be preferable to harming a friend to whom I owe so much, and who (moreover) is the brother and protector of a woman whom I must always hold in the highest regard, however she may have disappointed my own hopes.”
This pretty speech silenced him for half a moment; then he repeated, “You didn’t fire!” after which he decided that the phrase bore repeating a few dozen more times.
Such was the issue of my one and only duel;—for no rational man would willingly indulge in such a folly. Dueling is a poor substitute for assassination. It is an attempt to clothe our basest and most primitive resentments in a cloak of honor and virtue; but after all it is only a curiously inefficient sort of murder, with an unwelcome element of risk added to soothe the conscience of the murderer. For my part, I find a simple secret assassination, perhaps by means of poisoning, much more rational. A duel, after all, opens up the very real possibility that the wrong man may be killed. Then there is the likelihood of being found out, even if one is the successful contestant; and success in a duel, however honorable it may seem in the eyes of certain gentlemen, is still murder in the eyes of the law. Taking all these things together, can anything be more absurd than to begin the enterprise by placing every possible obstacle in the way of its success?
——This is a digression, you may say; I admit it, but I make no apology. I may choose to write what I like in my own book, and you may choose whether to read it or no. But I shall end the digression here, merely repeating that I should prefer poison as a means of ridding myself of anyone whose continued existence had become an inconvenience to me. Indeed, I have preferred poison, as the course of this narrative will show. Do you tremble, dear reader? Do you shudder and wonder what monstrous outrage I may already be plotting? Shudder as much as you like: I shall not tell you until the time comes, except to say that it will very probably be even more monstrous than you imagine.
The excitement of the duel sobered up Snyder considerably; I accompanied him on the long walk home, but he was able to remain upright without stumbling, and even to carry on a conversation of a sort. When we reached his house, his sister was waiting for him, along with a man I took to be Hoffman. Gertrude embraced her brother and expressed her inexpressible joy—so she called it, although clearly it admitted of some expression—to see us both alive, and apparently on good terms; it was obvious that she had had a clear idea of her brother’s intentions, and had spent the evening fretting herself half to death.
Hoffman watched her with an awkward concern. He was a short man, not slim and not stout, with a spherical head, his hair parted in the center with perfect symmetry and disciplined with a prodigious quantity of macassar oil. The only thing remarkable about him was the extraordinarily luxuriant moustache that weighed down his upper lip. My own moustache had achieved a respectable growth by this time, but clearly it would never equal the magnificent proportions of Hoffman’s It occurred to me that perhaps Gertrude, for all her good sense and domestic virtue, might judge a man by his moustache; and by that criterion Hoffman was clearly the better man.
While Gertrude tended to her brother, Hoffman and I introduced ourselves. His Christian name was Magnus, which I still think is just about the most absurd name ever applied to a human child, with the possible exception of my own. I did not even tell mine to him, introducing myself merely as Newman Bousted.
Apart from our respective names, we could find little to say to each other, and it was with some relief that I parted from him when Gertrude asked for a word with me in the parlor. I followed her into the little room; she slid the pocket door closed, and then turned to face me.
“Newman,” she said, “my brother has told me what you did for him tonight. I—I have no words to express my admiration for someone who would rather risk his own life than his friend’s”—here she lowered her eyes—“especially when his friend has behaved very badly.”
“Now, Gertrude,” I responded (thinking that what I said might later be repeated to Snyder), “I would not have you think that of your brother. His fault was a misapprehension, and everything he did was done from love for you. He loves you as never a brother has loved a sister; and if his conduct is at times excessive, recall the motive, and forgive him. You are his dearest treasure, and his only wish is to protect you from every harm.”
Was this not a pretty sentiment? I thought so, and Gertrude did as well. “Oh, Newman,” she replied, “at times I think you are something better than a man: for here I had made up my mind to plead with you to forgive my brother, and you are begging me to forgive him! And I do forgive him—I do, Newman, only—Oh! how I wish he wouldn’t drink so!”
At this I lowered my eyes in acknowledgment that I could not excuse her brother’s drinking quite as readily as I could excuse his dueling. Indeed I wished he would give up strong drink almost as heartily as she did, though from a somewhat more selfish motivation.
Gertrude’s admiration of me had never been higher; but it was a purely moral admiration that did not engage her passions. Hoffman was the moustache she loved. A certain competitive instinct in my heart resented his success; but my rational mind successfully overcame that resentment, reminding my heart how much easier her attraction to Hoffman made it for me to court Amelia.
Amelia! At the thought of her, I suddenly recalled the letter I had left open on the little table in the front parlor. What news did it bring? And had my sister been reading it? It would be an irresistible temptation to her if she found the thing. I was consumed simultaneously with eagerness to read the letter and dread of my sister’s having discovered it. Hoping I might get back home before Viola returned from her conference with Camellia, I made my rather hasty apologies to Gertrude, who agreed that it was quite late and saw me to the door. There she took my hand and told me very seriously, “Magnus—Mr. Hoffman—he is a good man, Newman. I hope you will come to know him.”
I have to this day no clear notion of why she said that. It was one more enigma from Gertrude, a girl from whom I had learned to expect enigmas. I expressed the hope that I would indeed come to know the man of whom she thought so highly, although in fact I could see no reason why I should desire any further acquaintance with him. Then I walked out into the chilly night.
The bracing cold was very pleasant, filling my lungs and rasping at my face as I strode briskly through the narrow streets of modest rowhouses, and then along North Avenue opposite the park, all the while turning over the events of the evening in my mind. Sometimes the duel presented itself to my imagination almost as if it were happening again; and only now, when the danger was over, did I come to realize how fearful the danger had been. In those moments I forgot about the letter from Amelia; but then the thought of it sitting there open on the table would come back to me, and I would quicken my pace again.
As soon as I reached the house, I flung my hat on the hall-tree, and I think I dropped my overcoat on the floor. Then I rushed into the parlor—and there was Viola, reading my letter from Amelia.
This was the realization of my worst fear. But the scene was not as I had imagined it. Instead of the smug self-satisfaction I had expected to see on her face, I beheld an expression of consternation I had never seen before on my sister. Her face was bright crimson, and I could hear her breathing in short gasps.
“Viola,” I began uncertainly.
Suddenly she started up—it appeared that she had not even noticed my entrance until I spoke—and dropped the letter on the little table where she had found it. She stood gaping, her eyes wide, her face turning a deeper purple with every tick of the clock. She must have stared at me open-mouthed like that for more than half a minute; then she suddenly turned and ran from the room, and I heard her shoes clattering noisily on the stairs.