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.”