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.