Posts filed under “Novels”
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.
The question now becomes one of priority.
Far into the night I labored, writing and re-writing my speech to old Colonel Goode. You may believe that it is absurd to write a speech for such an occasion, but I was unwilling to leave anything to chance. I must make a persuasive argument that I, humble though my origins might be, was the best possible husband for his beloved daughter. I must exercise all the powers of rhetoric to prove that Amelia could be in no safer hands than mine. I was, after all, asking him for his whole treasure—not just his daughter, but also the millions she would inherit. Certainly I would not mention the millions, but they must be present to his mind all the same. Could he safely deposit his daughter and his fortune in my hands? That was the question he had to be able to answer affirmatively. It was true that Amelia might be persuaded to defy her father even if he should withhold his consent; but, much as I lusted after Amelia’s beauty, my rational mind recognized that her beauty was transitory, whereas the Goode millions were of permanent value.
My first attempt cost me half an hour of staring at a blank sheet, until at last I was able to bring myself to write something:
“Sir: It behooves every young man to consider carefully how——”
That was as far as I got before I tossed the sheet aside. What a perfectly ridiculous way to begin! I made it sound as though I were applying for a position in his firm. And what sort of word was “behooves” anyway? Could it possibly even be English? The more I turned it over in my mind, the more absurd it sounded. Behooves, behooves, behooves, behooves, behooves. Horses and cattle are among the behooved animals. Obviously I was very tired, but I would not rest until the thing was done. I began afresh:
“Sir: Since I first made the acquaintance of your daughter in the course of rescuing her from a fate worse than death——”
No, I must not boast. He certainly remembered the circumstances under which he met me the first time; that worked in my favor, but to remind him of it specifically would be distasteful. I began once more:
“Sir: Unworthy though I am to ask for——”
No—why should I put the notion that I was unworthy into his mind? My aim was to show him that I was worthy. I must not begin by confusing the argument. That sheet joined the rest in the waste-basket. So did the next one, which touched on the Christian duty of marriage, and the one after that, which began, “I am reminded of the story of the Irishman and his sister.”
At last, as the clock was striking two, I finished an oration that I thought would be wonderfully persuasive. I spent another half-hour committing it to memory, and then at last settled in bed to dream of my beautiful Amelia.
The next day, my brother-in-law Bradley was quite surprised to learn that his wages had risen to two dollars a day. I told him that he had proved himself and deserved the additional half-dollar; I did not tell him that Amelia disapproved of low wages, since no one else but Viola knew that I had anything to do with Amelia. You may note that I made this decision without consulting my father. I informed him of it later (and he expressed his approval), but I had decided to regard the responsibility as mine. My father had already been made wealthy beyond his poor imagination by my management of the business, so he wisely refrained from questioning me in most of these affairs.
Immediately after supper I excused myself, left the house, and walked briskly to the Goode mansion. I was not looking forward to what I had to do, but I had some confidence in my persuasive abilities. Besides, there was Amelia. Any effort would be worth my while for such a prize. I recalled the soft warmth of her lips on mine, the tender caresses that turned my lapel under, and her eagerness to offer still greater liberties—Oh! what a delicious thought! It carried me all the way through the dark and chilly evening until I reached the front door of the Goode mansion and pulled the bell.
The same young man who had been my messenger on Sunday answered the door, and without waiting for me to present my card, told me, “Miss Goode has been expecting you, sir.”
I was about to say that I had come to call on her father, but then it occurred to me that Amelia might have some good reason for intercepting me. It would be wise (as well as pleasant) to see her before confronting her father. I followed the boy into the ballroom and through the double doors into the back parlor, where I found Amelia sitting—and her father in the chair opposite her.
The time had come—and suddenly I had forgotten every word of the speech I had so carefully composed. In a single moment, I went through a thousand agonies; my face flushed; I swallowed; and, at last, forgetting even a polite greeting, I began to stammer out the only words that came to me:
“Sir:—It behooves every young——”
“My son!” The old man fairly leaped out of his chair with his right hand extended. “No need to make a fool of yourself with some silly speech—my little girl has told me everything, and I’m delighted, my boy, delighted! I couldn’t hope for anything better.” He grasped my hand, and at the same time clapped me on the shoulder—which was something of a reach for him, since I was taller by a head.
“Well,” I replied,—and at the moment I could think of nothing else to say.
“Darling,” Amelia said from behind him, “I hope you won’t be angry with me, but you see I’ve anticipated you.”
“She told me that you were going to ask for her hand, and that I was to say yes,” the Colonel said with what I suppose was his heartiest laugh—a sort of contralto piping that seemed to emanate from somewhere behind his nose. “She’s made her mind up. She does that, my boy—you’ll find that out soon enough. But I was more than happy to oblige her—more than happy. Why, a fine young man like you is exactly what I had been hoping for. She won’t have me forever, you know.”
“Well, of course——” I started out rather uncertainly, but I soon found my footing again. “Of course I shall always take care of her as—as my greatest treasure.”
“I know you will, my boy. A man who would risk life and limb for a stranger would certainly take good care of a wife, wouldn’t he? —And you have a head for business as well, which is more necessary than most people think. Marriage is a business partnership: two persons combine their assets in hopes of making a profitable venture, just as——”
“Now, Father, don’t start talking business with him already,” Amelia said with a bright smile; then to me, “If you let him get started you’ll never hear the end of it.” This provoked another round of piping from the Colonel.
So our conversation turned to other matters: Amelia’s dear mother, carried off by a fever when the poor girl was but an infant—my own mother, whose memory my father professed to revere, although I doubt whether he really thought about her very much at all—and my father, to whom Colonel Goode had taken an inexplicable liking. I was told at last that I should consider myself already part of the family; and then Colonel Goode left us, saying, “Now I’m sure you young folks have things to talk about that you don’t need me to hear,” and telling Amelia she could show me out when she was through with me.
For a few moments after he was gone, we were both silent;—then Amelia threw herself into my arms and pressed her lips to mine. Then she drew back just enough to talk to me.
“Galahad, my valiant knight, tell me—are you happy that you have achieved your quest?”
“I don’t think there’s a happier man in Pennsylvania,” I replied, and I certainly meant it.
“I knew my father would like you right away. He’s seen so many fortune-hunters and besotted old widowers try their luck with me that an honest, brave, loyal young man like my Galahad was bound to please him.”
Well, I was not about to correct her impression of me. “I’ll always try to live up to his expectations.”
She smiled. “You’d do better to think of living up to mine, darling. I’m going to expect quite a lot from you as soon as I have a right to expect it.” She kissed me again.
Our conversation was more physical than verbal for some time after that; but at last we began to speak of the wedding itself.
“It must be as soon as it can be done decently,” Amelia insisted, and I was certainly not about to disagree with her. “April, perhaps—when the daffodils are blooming. I’ll speak to Father about the date, but I think the first Sunday after Easter might do.”
“The sooner the better,” I agreed.
“It will be the social event of the season, of course,” she continued. “It can’t be helped: Father’s position will make it so. In the mean time, there’s so much to do! Father will want to give a ball to announce our engagement, and I’m sure your father will want to have us for dinner, and we must decide on our living arrangements after the wedding—not to mention the wedding itself. It will be splendid, but—darling—I almost wish it did not have to be done, that we could be united to-night and never parted again!”
“Believe me, dearest, I wish it could be so. The wait will be difficult,—but patience will have its reward.”
“I know it will,” Amelia said with a soft smile. “But, in the mean time, you are now my acknowledged husband to be. I think that position permits you a few pardonable liberties beyond what you might have considered proper before.”
Since I could find no flaw in her reasoning, I agreed; and when I parted from her that evening, I was a considerably more educated man. I walked briskly back through the dark and quiet streets feeling as though nothing could possibly be wrong anywhere in the world. I also felt a positive need to proclaim my triumph, though the only possible audience for my proclamation would be my father and my sister. They would have to be told sometime, at any rate, and it might just as well happen immediately.
I entered the hall, left my hat and stick in the rack, and carefully hung my coat in the closet—reflecting, as I did so, that I should soon have servants to take care of those inconsequential tasks. Entering the front parlor, I found my sister sitting straight in a side chair reading one of her appalling novels, and my father slumped in an armchair with a book of sentimental poetry open on his face.
“I’m glad I found you both together,” I began with no other greeting. ”I have something important to tell you both.”
My father awoke with a start and brushed the book off his face; I saw Viola’s expression darken a little, and she said without looking up at me, “If you’ve sold your Graded Stationery to some department store in the Indian Territory, we can hear all about it in the morning,—or never, if that’s more convenient.” Viola liked to profess a violent distaste for hearing me talk about the firm at all, though she was very happy to spend the money I provided for her.
“Nothing to do with the firm,” I replied. “It’s a more personal kind of business. I’m going to marry Amelia Goode.”
At this Viola did look up, with her jaw gaping in a most unattractive fashion. My father, on the other hand, leaped out of his chair.
“You mean Hiram Goode’s daughter?” he asked—quite unnecessarily, since there cannot have been great numbers of Amelia Goodes wandering the streets of Allegheny.
“Yes, that Amelia Goode,” I answered cheerfully—for I was in such good spirits that I could not bring myself to be annoyed even by my father’s thickheadedness. “She has done me the honor of consenting to be my wife, and her father has given us his blessing.”
“Oh! this is marvelous, Galahad!” my father exclaimed. “Hiram and I were hoping the two of you might make a match of it—we thought you might have made an impression on the girl—but we never expected it to happen so quickly! Have you set a date yet?”
“Nothing firm,” I answered, while my mind was still trying to grasp the implications of what my father had just told me. Did he really say “Hiram and I”? —“Nothing firm,” I repeated, since my first attempt had come out as more of a squeak than a statement. “We had talked of a wedding in April, the first Sunday after Easter. We do want it to be soon, for reasons that—well, that I think should be obvious.”
“Of course, Galahad!” My father attempted a sly wink, which was really quite hideous. “No need to elaborate on that, my boy. Well, my heartiest congratulations to you both. I think she’s ideally suited to you, Galahad, and I know you’ll be an ideal husband to her. —Won’t they make a perfect pair, Viola?”
My father and I both looked toward the side chair, but there was no Viola in it. Instead, from the hall, we heard the sound of heels stamping noisily upstairs, and then a door ostentatiously slammed.
Viola refused to speak to me all the next day, which in ordinary circumstances would have suited me admirably; but in this case her blank refusal to be impressed by my greatest triumph irked me. My father, however, did unfortunately deign to speak, and during a brief lull at the store he explained the reason for Viola’s petulance. “She had planned her own wedding for June, you know. She seems to think that your wedding will detract from hers somehow.”
Well, of course it would. What kind of public glory did she expect for marrying the clerk in the lampseller’s store? I was marrying the belle of Allegheny. Nevertheless, I tried to think of something more conciliatory to say to my father.
“I should think that, by having her wedding after ours, she would have the last word, so to speak. Hers would be the wedding everyone would remember.” This was nothing but a lie, of course, and a clumsy one. I was not yet very far advanced in my pursuit of evil, and I had not yet learned to avoid all but the most necessary lies. It is greatly to one’s advantage to have a reputation for veracity; the rational or evil man must in fact be uncommonly truthful.
“Your sister won’t see it that way,” my father replied, displaying more knowledge of the nature of sisters than I might have expected of him.
“Well, I can’t be held responsible for my sister’s unreasonable attitude,” I said,—knowing at the same time that I would be held responsible for it, because Viola would see to it that I was. But at that moment a patron walked through the door, which put an end to our conversation.
I told Amelia about Viola’s unabated petulance a few days later. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, and Amelia and I were actually strolling in the park. We should ordinarily have taken the carriage, which afforded us more privacy; but Henry, on whose discretion Amelia and I relied, was off that day, and it really was delightful to walk in the warm sun after so much chilly weather. A good number of other young couples had come to the same conclusion, so the park was quite lively that day.
“It’s such a pity your sister should be so cross,” Amelia responded when I told her how my sister—who in fact still remained mute when I was present—was behaving. “I had hoped we should be great friends.”
Was not Amelia the best-natured girl in the world? Imagine meeting Viola and hoping one could be great friends with her! “I’m sure you will be,” I assured her, though not really believing anything of the sort. “Viola will forget all about it shortly.” In fact Viola had never forgiven me for being born, so I suppose twenty-two years might be a good estimate of the length of one of her grudges.
Amelia was about to reply, but just then a familiar voice hailed me, and I looked up to see Gertrude Snyder, her brother, and a moustache behind which lurked that Hoffman fellow. They were all strolling toward us.
“How do you do, Mr. Bousted?” Gertrude greeted me.
“Miss Snyder! How delightful to see you. I believe you know Miss Goode.”
“How do you do, Miss Goode?”
Amelia replied with a mumbled greeting, which was very uncharacteristic of her.
“And this,” I continued, taking up the burden of introductions, “is Mr. Magnus Hoffman”—I indicated the ambulatory moustache on Gertrude’s right,—“and Miss Snyder’s brother, Mr. Edward Snyder.”
“Mr. Snyder and I are already acquainted,” Amelia said quietly. She was gripping my arm; I felt that same unsettling rigidity in her frame that I had felt that night in the carriage when I rejected her amorous advances. I reflected that she must often have seen me walking with Gertrude; I should probably have to reveal the extent of my acquaintance with Gertrude when I talked to Amelia later. But I might at least make that conversation easier by emphasizing Gertrude’s current attachment to the moustache whose arm she was holding.
“And how have you and Mr. Hoffman been getting on?” I asked with my pleasantest smile.
Gertrude also smiled—one of those very rare bright smiles of hers that indicated genuine happiness. “We’re to be married this spring,” she answered.
“What wonderful news!” I exclaimed—quite sincerely, since it would certainly persuade Amelia that there was no lingering attachment between Gertrude and me. “Miss Goode and I will also be married this spring.”
“Oh, how splendid, Mr. Bousted! I had no idea you and Miss Goode were even acquainted.” There was no accusation in her tone; either it did not occur to her to wonder whether I had already had designs on Amelia when I was courting her, or she did not choose to wonder. For my part, I did not answer the implied question.
“And you, Snyder,” I said as cheerily as I could,—“you must be happy to see your sister so well matched.”
“H’m? Oh, yes indeed,” he answered distractedly. He did not look happy, which was not at all surprising when I considered his stated opinion of the Hoffman fellow.
Clearly we had exhausted the possibilities of pleasant conversation, if neither Snyder nor Amelia was ready to be pleasant. “Well, it was very good to see you,” I concluded, “and my best wishes to the happy pair.”
Gertrude returned my compliments, still smiling, and then continued on her way with her brother and the moustache. Amelia and I also resumed our walk, but I could still sense that strange hardness in her arm.
Finally, after a thoroughly uncharacteristic silence, Amelia spoke in a rather quiet monotone. “Is Mr.—Mr. Snyder” (she pronounced it as if it were a foreign name and she was not quite sure if she had it right) “a good friend of yours?”
Something in her tone suggested that there was more to the question than what was conveyed by mere words. She was probably looking for information about Gertrude, and I decided that it was time to tell her as much as it suited me to tell her about my abortive pursuit of Miss Snyder.
“More of a business acquaintance really,” I told her. “I know the sister a good bit better than the brother. Gertrude and——”
“Galahad, that was the man,” she said suddenly.
I stopped in my tracks. “The man?”
Amelia looked around nervously, but there was no one within earshot. “I told you that there was a man who—who took my innocence. That was the man—the man you called Snyder.”
A consummation devoutly to be wished.
Amelia was a perfect hostess for the rest of the evening, which meant that I saw very little of her except from a distance. She took special care of Viola, so that she always had a dance partner; I suppose she thought it would please me. And so it did, but only because it showed Amelia herself in such an attractive light. Otherwise, nothing would have pleased me more than to see Viola perfectly miserable. I danced with a number of fine ladies, not one of whom made the slightest impression upon me, although I was told later that my good humor and scrupulous courtesy made quite an impression upon them. To Amelia I spoke only once more, briefly, as we were departing, and with her father beside me, she could not communicate anything particular to me other than a secret glimmer in her eye;—but that was enough to make my heart beat faster and my breath come shorter.
The brief carriage-ride home afforded Viola the opportunity of a monologue on her great success as a member of proper society. I remember nothing of it except a few of her remarks about Amelia herself. Viola thought that “she was very charming, to be sure. But that gown!” (Here she looked rather pointedly at me, probably recalling what she had read in Amelia’s letter.) “I suppose even a fortune like the Goodes’ is no guarantee of correct taste. No bustle at all! And the—well, I won’t say it was indecent, but my word! I wouldn’t be seen in public that way.” Although I had a very different opinion of the gown in question, I was in such good spirits that I could not even bring myself to feel offended by Viola’s malicious babbling. After all, whatever else might be said about the relative merits of one style or another, there could be no question that a gown with Amelia in it was worth a great deal more than a gown with Viola in it. I sat and smiled the whole time Viola was babbling, and even though she did not shut her flapping jaw until we arrived at our house on Beech-street, for probably the first time in my life I was not annoyed by my sister’s incessant chatter. Even the considerable effort required to extract her from the carriage did not put me out of temper; and when my father paid the coachman, I added a considerable gratuity from my own pocket—not, I hasten to explain, from foolish notions of generosity, but because I thought it behooved us, as a family worthy to mix with such as the Goodes, to keep up the appearance of prosperity.
It was absolutely necessary for my purposes that I should keep the flame of love burning bright in Amelia’s breast. In spite of the late hour, therefore, I sat at my desk to compose a love-letter before retiring, so that it should be ready to go out with the morning post. I put some considerable effort into this composition, although it was by no means an unwelcome labor. Under the influence of the lingering memory of Amelia’s lips, her touch, her gown—all things that are even now so fresh in my memory that hardly a day seems to have passed between then and now—the words poured out of my pen. Nevertheless, I wrote three drafts before I was satisfied with the result. In particular, I wavered over the greeting, before deciding at last that Amelia’s conduct had given me ample license to dare all.
When I had finished the letter, I took care to copy it in a rapid but elegant hand, so that it should appear to be a work of haste rather than deliberation, an outpouring of my passion rather than a carefully considered essay. Since I took that precaution, I have the original here before me now, which does not differ in more than two or three words from the letter that Amelia read:
Ma chère Belle Anglaise,——
I cannot sleep. The memory of your touch, of your lips on mine, will give me no rest. I did not know that it was possible for love to grasp a man’s whole being and leave no room even for thoughts of sleep, but I find that it is so. And to know that my love is returned with equal intensity is almost more than my heart can bear! I close my eyes and feel the impression of your lips on mine, and my heart beats so wildly that I imagine it must wake the whole household. I know that you have heard your beauty praised often enough, if indeed perfection can ever be praised often enough; but beauty alone could never have left such a mark upon my heart. It is, after all, the soul in which beauty resides;—and yet I must confess that I find myself wishing that Boucher were alive today to paint you. What a masterpiece he would create! He could never capture the essence of your true beauty,—but I should very much like to see what he could capture.
And now, my dearest, my love, my own Amelia, one question consumes me:—When shall I see you again? To you, perhaps, it is merely a question of the clock or the calendar; but to me it is life or death. I live if I see you; I die if I do not. Remember, then, when you reply, that you hold my life in your hands, and be merciful to
Your devoted servant,
I signed the letter with that ridiculous name my father had given me because Amelia seemed to enjoy thinking of me as her Galahad, her invincible knight and protector; and I was not such a fool as to allow my distaste for the name to stand in the way of my winning the greatest prize I had ever fought for.
I copied the letter, as I mentioned before, and I do recall making at least one change: I changed “wishing that Boucher were alive today” to “wishing that Boucher were here today,” because I could not say with absolute conviction that I knew Boucher to be dead. Then I sealed the letter, confident that it was as perfect as I could have made it. How assiduously I applied myself to my work in those days! To-day I have a secretary to attend to my correspondence, and a messenger-boy waiting to carry it off if it is urgent; but in those days I had only myself—slender enough resources, it seems to me.
The next day was Sunday, but I was not willing to allow the superstitious indolence of the postal service to delay my letter to Amelia. I went straight out after church and took the letter over to the Goodes’ house myself, handing it to the boy who answered the door along with a very fresh-looking dollar, and giving him strict instructions to deliver the letter only to Miss Goode. The magical gleam of silver made him my eager co-conspirator; and it was not more than two hours later that the same boy appeared at our door with a note for me, which Viola peevishly but wordlessly delivered, since Mrs. Ott took Sundays off. I wish I could describe to you the delightful expression of haughty disapproval on my dear sister’s face as she handed me that letter: her eyebrows rose to such a peak that I thought they might fly off her forehead. Yet she still said nothing, dropping the letter into my lap as if it were some particularly unpleasant insect and turning with a slight snort to leave me alone in the parlor.
Of course I did not delay a moment after her departure: recognizing Amelia’s hasty but tidy hand, I broke the seal at once. Here is the letter itself in the box with the rest of them, and what sweet joy it is even now to read it!
My valiant knight,——
It is not possible to express the joy I felt last night when we were able to snatch a few precious moments in the gallery; but I too am consumed with the longing to see you again. A day has not yet passed, but an hour apart is too long—oh, that you were with me now! I must be content for the moment with your letter. But if you will come to-morrow evening to the meeting of the Workingmen’s Improvement Society, I am speaking there, and I shall certainly find a way to spend a few moments alone with you afterward. —Oh, Galahad, how I wish we never had to part again! But I know I shall dream of you to-night; and we shall not truly be apart if you will also dream of me, perhaps even as
Your passionately devoted
With this letter, which I read over three times, she had enclosed a program for the meeting of the Workingmen’s Improvement Society, which was to be held at the parish hall of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and at which the principal event was a speech by Miss Amelia Goode on the Condition of the Working Poor in the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny. Now, the Working Poor had ceased to hold any interest for me the moment I ceased to be one of their number; but merely for the opportunity of gazing on Amelia I was willing to endure any number of pious platitudes about the duty of Christian charity toward our most useless citizens. I would certainly attend the meeting.
In the evening I retired with my thoughts of Amelia. I lay awake for quite some time after I had turned down the gas, forming lovely images of Amelia as Boucher might have painted her. I remember hearing the hideous clock in the front parlor striking eleven, and then half past. I did not, however, dream of Amelia. For some reason I dreamt of legions of shopkeepers’ wives filling the store on Wood-street.
My dream was not far from the reality. The next day was an extraordinarily busy one, and but for the invaluable assistance of Bradley, I think I might have given in to despair. I took the trouble to congratulate Bradley on his performance, because I had good reason to hope that a few words of praise might serve as an inducement to even more dedicated work on future occasions. I did not, however, make use of the word “invaluable,” since I feared that it might provoke him to ask why, if he was truly so invaluable, we persisted in valuing him at only a dollar and a half per diem.
I had no time for proper supper in the evening. I informed my father that I had an appointment; he asked no questions, and Viola implied by her supercilious silence that she knew all the answers. A crust of bread from the kitchen was sustenance enough—that and a quarter of an apple pie.
Marching through the chilly darkness, I found my way to the hall where Amelia would be speaking. This was the old St. Andrew’s, not the much more elaborate Gothic edifice that has since replaced it; but it was even then a good step above the humble Methodist meeting-house my father had attended since we removed to Allegheny. Crowds were gathering already, though I was early by a quarter-hour. They were crowds of the sort of people I had seen at the Goodes’ ball—indeed, quite probably many of the same people. No workingmen were to be seen: clearly they were not expected, and I wonder what reception one of them might have met had he wandered in fresh from the mill, with his face black and his coat reeking of coal-smoke. Indeed, I almost felt out of place myself. I had to remind myself that my newfound prosperity had elevated my social position to a level that placed me on an equal footing with many of the other gentlemen in attendance. And how many of them had kissed the divine Amelia Goode?
I dropped a dollar into the donation box at the door, for which I seemed to be regarded as a prodigy of generosity; but I considered it well worth the expense to establish my credentials as a man to whom money was of no importance. Exchanging a few polite greetings with random strangers, I found myself a seat in the hall about a third of the way from the front to the back—close enough, I reasoned, for Amelia to see me there, but not conspicuously close. I spent the remaining few minutes examining the program, which promised a positively excruciating evening to everyone who was not fortunate enough to have one of the speakers in love with him. Invocation by the Rev’d Egbert Wheeze—Preliminary Remarks by the General Secretary, Mrs. Henry W. Prattle—Report on the Moral Questions Raised by Public Bathhouses by Mrs. E. F. Prigge (if you expected something a bit sensational from this report, you were very much mistaken). Then, at last, The Condition of the Working Poor, by Miss Amelia Goode. I sat through all the edifying preliminaries with a fixed expression of rapt attention, though I am sure I could not have repeated a single word from any of those speeches five minutes later. But at last Amelia appeared, and then my attention was no longer feigned.
She wore blue, which suited her very well; she was modestly and decorously attired, but there was no concealing the beauty of her form. What did she say? You may be surprised to know that I listened as well as looked. She spoke of the duty of employers to provide a living wage, and told some very affecting tales of the difficulties faced by those of the laboring classes whose wages did not permit them even the bare subsistence that was their natural right. And even the clerks in stores—why, many of them earned no more than a dollar and a half a day! It was enough for the needs of a single man, perhaps, but hardly sufficient for a family. How can we expect to suppress vice in the poorer neighborhoods if we make the state of marriage positively prohibitive for the ordinary workingman? Nay more, the inability of even the most diligent hired hand—and she laid especial stress upon the diligence, for she would not have us think that she spoke of idlers and wastrels—his inability to provide for his family is productive of a veritable cascade of evils, a cataract of vices. The sons turn to crime, and the daughters to infamy; the mother wastes away heartbroken, and the father finds his only consolation in drink. Oh, the affecting pictures she painted of gloom and ruin among the poor! It was enough to bring a tear of sympathy to every eye in the hall—for when Amelia speaks, she is invariably persuasive, and even I could almost find pity in my heart for the imaginary families her words conjured up so vividly before us. Yet though she warmed to her subject and gave it her all, when her gaze, wandering over the audience, rested on me, her eyes lit up with a secret joy, invisible perhaps to everyone else, but filling me with a warmth and ardor that made every word she spoke a golden treasure. This Amelia was the object of every man’s longing, of every female’s envy—and I possessed her heart! Oh, what rewards evil has in store for the patient!
When Amelia had concluded her oration and received much applause, the meeting was ended, as if it were impossible that anyone should command any attention after the divine Miss Goode had left the podium. I made my way forthwith to the front of the hall, where Amelia received me with decent and friendly warmth, introducing me to certain other members of the Society as “Mr. Bousted, of Bousted’s stationery,” and allowing me the infinite satisfaction of discovering that the Bousted name was by now well-nigh universally known among the better class of citizens in Allegheny. We made some inconsequential conversation on the subject of the workingman, and how fortunate he was to have such friends as we were; the others drifted away one by one, but I stayed, until at last it was impossible to stay any longer without inconveniencing the man who was waiting to lock up the hall. Then there was no one but the coachman to take note of my leaving the hall in Amelia’s carriage.
It was a closed winter carriage, and it was a dark night, and as soon as the thing began to move, Amelia’s lips were pressed to mine; nor do I believe she disengaged them for at least a quarter-mile.
“Galahad!” she sighed at last when her lips were free for sighing; and that sufficed for another quarter-mile’s conversation. Her head resting on my shoulder told me more than a volume of extemporaneous remarks might have done.
At last she spoke again. “I told Henry to take the long way, because I have—things to say to you, Galahad. But first, I must tell you that I love you, with burning passion, and—and whatever else I tell you, please hear it in the light of this——”
She kissed me again, and there was another quarter-mile gone.
“I love you, Amelia,” I said at last, “more than I thought it was possible to love. Nothing you say will change my love. If your father is an obstacle, let me prove myself to him—let him give me twelve labors, dragons to slay—what do I care, if you love me?”
“Oh, Galahad, I believe you, and I do love you. If you were any other sort of man, I’d never tell you what I feel I must tell you—but if you were any other sort of man, I shouldn’t love you as I do, for I feel instinctively that you love honesty above all, and to a man like you I cannot lie.”
She was silent for a moment, and of course my mind worked like a locomotive, trying to imagine what this revelation would be. It was only a moment, however; when she spoke again, it was in a lower voice, tinged with something that sounded like shame.
“Galahad,” she said haltingly, “I am not worthy of you. A valiant knight’s fair lady should be pure as snow, but—oh, Galahad, I am not pure!”
“Pure?” I repeated idiotically.
“I am not—not—unspotted,” she explained. “You are a—a man of the world, I am sure. You know that there are men—men not at all like you—who seduce young ladies with false promises. I knew such a man,—I knew him, and—and—he took from me what can never be returned.”
Well, that at least explained how she knew so much more about kissing than I did. That was my first thought. Almost at once, however, it was followed by the realization that Amelia expected me to be thinking something else. She feared rejection; she hoped for forgiveness; but she was certainly not expecting me to say, “Well, if he taught you to kiss like that, then bully for him!”
“Darling Amelia,” I began in my softest and most love-besotted voice, “do you really suppose that any past indiscretion could diminish my love for you? I own that I should be very angry if I met the cad who dared to deceive you;—but angry for the pain he caused you, my love, for I can never bear to see you hurt. But, Amelia, do not class me with him! It is your heart I love, and I am sure there is no purer heart in the world.”
“Oh, Galahad!” I had evidently said the right thing, because we lost another quarter-mile. I am not altogether sure that Henry did not take us by way of Beaver Falls; the man certainly took his business seriously when you told him to go the long way.
“Galahad,” Amelia said when at last her lips were free to speak, “you’re the only man I’ve ever known whom I could trust completely. And how I love you for believing that my heart is pure! But, nevertheless, I’m—I am a woman of the world now. I have lost my girlish innocence, and I can never get it back, and so—so I think perhaps it is not necessary for us to be over-scrupulous.” She kissed me again, and then spoke just above a whisper. “My father has retired for the evening, as he always does promptly at half past nine; his bedroom is at the opposite end of the house from mine; and Henry is discreet to a fault.”
I suppose it was quite obvious what she meant me to infer; but my mind was so entirely unwilling to believe my good fortune that I actually asked her, “What are you saying, Amelia?”
Again she pressed her lips to mine for a moment, and then she continued in an even lower voice, her lips almost touching my ear, “I mean that there is nothing to prevent you from spending to-night in my bed.”
An indescribable thrill passed through me from the pit of my stomach up into my chest. I kissed her passionately. Here at last was the thing I had longed for since I first saw Amelia walking past me on Federal-street, the crown of all my schemes and the fulfillment of all my desires—a night of rapture with the most beautiful girl in Allegheny. And yet—and yet—while I kissed her I was thinking furiously. When I first began my pursuit of Amelia, I could imagine nothing beyond having my way with her; but now, with her lips on mine, and the experience of the past few days in my memory, I realized that I desired infinitely more than that. I could never be content with one night in Amelia’s arms; I wanted her to have and to hold so long as I lived. I had also seen a glimpse of the wealth of the Goodes, and do not suppose that it had failed to make an impression on me. But of course the possibility of possessing Amelia and her fortune depended upon Colonel Goode’s having a high opinion of me. He thought highly of me now. Would I risk that for one night’s enjoyment?
What would Baucher do under like circumstances? Surely the truly evil thing to do, the enlightened course of action, would be to consider my own advantage in the long term, and not merely the present pleasure. It would be difficult; it would require discipline and self-control; but evil is not always easy. One must have faith that it will produce good results in the end;—and by “good,” I mean (of course) redounding to one’s own advantage.
“Amelia,” I breathed in a half-vocal whisper, “my darling, my love, there is nothing I could possibly desire more than a night in your arms,—except a thousand nights, ten thousand nights in your arms. Beloved, hear me out. I am tempted—oh! how I am tempted!—but I feel I must control my passion, not because I don’t desire you, but because I desire you infinitely more than that.” As I spoke, I was aware of a change in Amelia, a hardening, some tightening of the muscles that suggested she might push away from me; so I very suddenly decided that I must dare all at once. “What I mean is this: I know that our acquaintance has been short, but I can no longer imagine a life without you. My darling Amelia, my one true love, will you be my wife?”
For a moment that seemed like an eternity, there was a silence like death in the carriage; then there was an explosion of emotion.
“Yes!” Amelia half-sobbed, half-shouted into my ear. “Oh, Galahad, yes!—a thousand times yes!”
My joy and relief actually made me laugh. “I think one time will suffice,” I said, and Amelia laughed and sobbed at the same time and covered my face with kisses.
“I didn’t dare hope—Well, I did hope, but—Oh! Galahad, my dearest love, I’ll make you the best, most loving, most faithful wife there ever was!”
And that was the last we spoke—we were otherwise occupied—until Henry finally managed to bring the carriage into the porte cochere of the Goodes’ mansion. The stop surprised both of us; we had paid no attention at all to the world outside the carriage.
“I suppose we must say good-night now,” I said with unfeigned regret.
“I’ll have Henry take you home,” Amelia responded.
“No, I’ll walk—I’m too happy to ride. Soon we’ll never have to part again.”
“It must be very soon,” Amelia agreed. “I won’t be content until I rest in your arms…You must speak to Father to-morrow!”
Yes—her father. There was still that difficulty to get over. We agreed that I should come after dinner the next day to see Colonel Goode, and I cannot say that I was completely confident of myself. The triumph of Amelia’s acceptance counted for nothing unless I could persuade her father that I was the right man to marry his daughter. I believe Amelia might have run away with me if he had refused, but that would mean running away from the Goode millions.
As I walked back through the cold and silent streets of Allegheny, I cannot tell you how many times I reminded myself that, but for my own scruple, I might have been lying in bed at that moment with the most beautiful girl in the city. How I wished I might turn back and tell Amelia that I had changed my mind! But I must not risk anything that would turn old Colonel Goode against me. The Goode fortune was at stake! I must keep that fact constantly in mind, although my mind insisted that the only thing it wanted to think about right now was Amelia.
I left my hat, coat, and stick in the hall when I came home, and then went into the front parlor, where I found Viola sitting, reading one of her dreadful three-volume novels. She looked up at me, and her eyebrows rose considerably, while her physiognomy contorted into a scowl of disapproval. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the mantel, and I was a wreck. My collar was detached and all askew; my hair looked as if it had been trying to escape my head; the left lapel of my jacket was turned under. I looked like a man who had been with a lover. How delightful it was to see my sister wallowing in indignation! I turned to face her and gave her a knowing smile—and then I winked at her. She slumped lower in her chair and buried her nose in her book.
I am introduced to polite society, and I find that it suits me very well.
Something appalling must be in that letter. In all my life I had never seen Viola in such a state. I had seen her furious; I had seen her seething with hatred; I had seen her frightened half out of her mind by a spider; but I had never seen that look of—of what? I supposed it must be horror, because I could not imagine what else it might be.
What could be in that letter? My mind whirled through every possibility, each more frightful than the last. But the general tenor of all of them was that I had been discovered: somehow—I knew not how—Amelia must have found out the truth about my lying in wait for her in the park; she must have denounced me in that letter in terms so scathingly explicit that even my dullard sister could understand them and be horrified.
Now, at this point in the narrative, if any readers besides myself ever peruse these pages, I suppose they must be just about evenly divided into two camps. The one group asks, “But why does he not simply read the letter? It is there before him on the table where his purple-faced imbecile of a sister left it. Why does he speculate on the contents when the thing itself is there, waiting to divulge whatever secrets it holds?” So say the readers who possess no imaginative faculty, and I think I should find it unutterably wearisome to write for such readers as those. —In the other camp are the readers who already know what it is to be paralyzed by such a fear; who even now dread turning the page and making the terrible discovery along with me. To you, dear sympathetic readers, I address myself, since it is so much less laborious to write for you than for those others. You have already, without my telling you, felt the near impossibility of even lifting the letter from the table, as if it were something a thousand times heavier than lead; you know how my shifting eyes lit on every other object in the room, but shunned the letter as if it were as painfully bright as the sun itself;—because your own eyes would have done the same. You see the blackness of the future along with me; you wonder as I do how I shall continue to exist in a world in which all my hopes are dashed.
Yet I did read the letter, because I dared myself to read it. “What,” I said to myself, “are you such a coward that a few sheets of paper terrify you? What would Baucher do under like circumstances? He would read the letter, and then, no matter what doom it portended, he could contrive to turn it to his advantage.”
I therefore took the letter in hand,—and almost immediately burst into laughter: audible and doubtless very undignified laughter. The greeting alone was enough to show that I had entirely misjudged the cause of Viola’s consternation. As I read on, however, my laughter soon subsided, and by the end of the letter I believe I must have been nearly as red as Viola had been. But I need not delay you any longer, dear sympathetic reader: I have given you so much description of my mental agitation only because I desired to point a valuable moral, which is how easily irrational feelings of guilt can assault a man who is only just setting out on a course of pure evil. I have the very letter before me now, and I shall transcribe it faithfully for you, the ideal reader in my imagination.
My dearest Galahad,—
If you have any regard for my reputation, or any sense at all, then you will burn this letter—but oh! I find that I hope you have no sense, and treasure it next to your heart. It would be something for me to know that my words lie there in your bosom, where I long to lie myself. No virtuous girl would ever commit such thoughts as mine to paper, and our short acquaintance should make me doubly reserved. But I cannot write anything at all without telling you how I long for you, how I burn to feel your lips pressed to mine. Shall I say more? When I retire at night, I long for the time when you should retire with me; I long to lie in your arms and feel your gentle strength pressing against me; I long for things no proper girl has even words to name. I have dreamed of these things night after night since I first saw you. Do you see now why I say you must burn this letter?—And yet, if you have not the heart to burn it, oh, Galahad, how happy it would make me!—Then you must keep it next to your heart, and let no one ever see it; and if your father or your sister should ask what I wrote to you, you shall say with perfect truth that I asked after your health, and had forgot the name of that book we talked of when last I saw you. —How is your health, Mr. Bousted? And what was the name of that book we talked of when last I saw you? I seem to have forgot. —Now you have no need to deceive your family, for I am sure that deception is not natural to you. They need not know that I have committed to paper such thoughts as no respectable girl ought even to think; but oh! Galahad! I could not do otherwise: the thought that you might hesitate from not knowing how I might receive your addresses—— Galahad! You must not hesitate! I have placed myself at your mercy; my very life is in your hands. I will see you very soon, and then you must tell me—you must, or I shall die—that I have not been a fool. Farewell, Galahad, my valiant knight, and when you retire to-night, take me with you in your thoughts, and know that I should give almost anything to be with you in body as well; and that I long with all my heart for the time when you shall call me
Reader, you may be quite certain that I did take Amelia with me in my thoughts—but also Viola, who came all unbidden into my mind. The letter was my greatest triumph;—but Viola had read it. Would she blight this triumph as she did every other success of mine?
Viola said nothing about the letter the next morning. She went through the ordinary business of breakfast in the usual way, except that she avoided meeting my eyes. I avoided meeting hers as well, and I am sure we were both quite happy to be spared the trouble of looking at each other. But whether she was mortally embarrassed at having been caught reading a personal letter, or whether the contents of the letter had shocked her conventionally virtuous little mind so deeply that she could not bring herself to speak of the matter at all, or whether her own betrothal had inclined her to take a more indulgent view of her brother’s amours, she said nothing.
As for myself, I had changed my opinion of Amelia considerably, and rather for the better. Her letter had taught me something that (absurd as it may seem that I should have been so ignorant) I had not yet known: that women can have desires comparable to those of men. I wonder now what I had imagined before that letter: across the distance of so many years, it is impossible to reconstruct my ignorance. I think I believed that a woman’s love was pure and spiritual, whereas a man’s love must always be admixed with a certain quantity of physical desire. If, as it seems, I had a higher opinion of women than they deserved, it was doubtless owing to the innumerable dreadful novels I had read, most of them written by females who never permitted the least suspicion of an impure thought to cross the minds of their heroines. Even the fallen women in those novels had fallen by directing their pure and spiritual love toward the wrong sort of man; there was no suggestion that the female herself had desired the act by which she had fallen, but rather she had permitted it in the mistaken belief that it would bind the object of her love to her. But in one letter Amelia had taught me, or at least begun to teach me, that women are not such fools as they appear to be in popular novels. I suppose I ought to have learned the same thing from the classical literature of my school days; but the love of Dido and Aeneas does not make a lasting impression on a boy’s heart when it is presented in terms of ablatives of means.
Preparations for the ball and the wedding (though Viola had decided on a June wedding, which was months away) occupied Viola completely for the next few days, and I was happy to have her out of my way. I had a letter to Amelia to post; again, I kept no copy, but you may be sure that it was filled with expressions of delight at the content of her letter, and assurance that I loved her all the better for her candor. Yes, I told her that I loved her, although the words could hardly have come as a surprise to her after the sentiments we had already exchanged.
The great night came at last: the night of the ball that Viola regarded as the crowning event of her life so far, hardly to be exceeded by her own wedding. A man can dress himself tolerably well in half an hour, but I think Viola had been dressing for a solid week. The ultimate effect was splendid in a horrible way: the dress was expensive, the gloves perfect, the jewelry at least tasteful; but in the middle of it all was my odious sister, and no amount of painting could make her a lily. The bustle she had chosen was huge beyond all measure, and no end-table or hall-tree was safe when Viola was in the vicinity. I have listened to many arguments in favor of the proposition that civilization is continually improving, but the most convincing evidence I have seen of any advancement in human happiness is the disappearance of the bustle.
As for myself, I had dressed as well as I could. I believe I looked respectable if nothing else. My father, on the other hand, was dressed in a style that might have been quite respectable in the time of Andrew Jackson, for aught I know; but it was not calculated to win him any admirers in the present day. He might just as well have worn knee-breeches and a powdered wig; it could not have made him look any more embarrassingly absurd.
We had hired a carriage for the evening: it was an expense my father considered ridiculously extravagant, but Viola insisted that to arrive at such an event without a carriage would be as improper as to arrive in one’s night-clothes. How Viola knew such things she never revealed to us. She was not in the habit of arriving at millionaires’ balls, but she set herself up as an expert on the subject. Her opinion carried a certain amount of authority, because she was blessed with the ability to make life, or at least domestic tranquility, completely impossible if we did not accede to her wishes. The carriage, therefore, arrived promptly at the time specified, and then had to wait another half-hour while Viola made the final adjustments to her appearance, at the end of which she was still Viola. Then at last we ascended into the carriage: it smelt equally of must and of horse manure, and I recall wondering why the wealthy classes put up with the stench of carriages when they could walk in the open air. (The answer, of course, is that a carriage properly maintained has no disagreeable odor; at least none of mine have, and a coachman who allowed my carriage to deteriorate into such a deplorable condition would not long remain in my employ.) Viola took up most of the interior with the imposing edifice of her bustle; my father and I were forced to compress ourselves into the smallest possible dimensions. I should have been much happier walking; my father,—well, there is no telling whether any thoughts were blowing through the howling wastes of his mind, but he seemed as idiotically pleased with the world as he generally was. Viola was entirely satisfied with her choice of the carriage, and found it impossible to contain her satisfaction, expressing it in a continuous stream of blether without taking a breath the entire length of the short ride from Beech-street to the Goodes’ house on North Avenue.
And here we were, in a swirl of activity like nothing I had ever known before, with a line of carriages (none but ours the least bit musty) discharging splendid ladies and fine gentlemen into a blaze of lights, laughter, and motion. Somewhere inside the house music was already playing. And this was how I was to spend the evening—among the aristocracy of Allegheny! A sudden fear gripped me. Would I have the courage to walk through this press of humanity, to present myself as if I belonged there? Well, of course I must. I was ashamed that I had ever doubted. Truly enlightened men do not ask what belongs to them. They take what they desire, and that is the end of it. Strange—it took as much courage to enter that crowd as it had ever taken to do anything in my life, and I do not except the duel with Snyder.
By the time I had set my feet on the ground, I had worked up the courage to go in; but first we had to extract Viola and the bustle from the carriage. I worked from the front, and my father took up his position in the rear; our efforts were greatly hampered by Viola’s worry that we might somehow mar the gown, or dislodge a bow from its exactly proper place in the composition. I was ready to call for a carpenter to take the carriage apart, but Viola at last extracted herself and her bustle from the thing, and we were on our way into the house.
What a house! The walk through the grand entrance hall and into the presence of the Goodes looms in my mind like a half-remembered dream of a pilgrimage. I know that we were met by Sheridan and announced, and I know that he conducted us to the presence of Amelia and her father; but their house was so enormous, and the crowd so pressing, that the journey thither seemed as full of peril and incident as the voyages of Ulysses, and my courage was tried as sorely as if I had to face a dozen of Homer’s choicest mythical monsters. Viola was struck absolutely dumb by the spectacle, which was a great improvement in her; but my father was struck with an unquenchable loquacity. I do not remember a single thing he said, although his remarks followed one after another in a ceaseless torrent: I remember thinking only that, if there were indeed a benevolent Providence, my prayer that he would shut his mouth before we reached the Goodes would be answered. It was not answered, which was just as I ought to have expected, but which was a severe disappointment nonetheless.
And then we were before the Goodes themselves, father and daughter, and if I had not been speechless before, I should certainly have been struck dumb by the vision in front of me. I knew now that my journey had been so arduous because I had at last been admitted to the heavenly mansions, and here before me was an angel. Amelia was dressed in the latest French fashion, all classical drapery, with her shoulders bare, displaying more of her captivating flesh than I believed it was possible for a girl to show in public, and with absolutely no bustle at all. It was fortunate for me that she took it upon herself to begin the conversation, because I should not have been able to form articulate speech.
“Miss Bousted!” Amelia greeted my sister as though she were genuinely pleased to see her, which of course was impossible. “How delightful to see you again! I hope you have been well.”
Viola murmured a few syllables in what might have been Chaldee for all we could understand of it.
“And Mr. Bousted—the elder and the younger, of course,” Amelia continued with a bright smile. My father returned her greeting with an old-fashioned bow that would have made John Quincy Adams proud; I very properly took her hand for the approved length of time and no more.
“You must remind me to show you the gallery,” Amelia said to me. “Father is very proud of his collection, and I know what an admirer you are of Boucher.” —In fact I had never heard the name Boucher before: in the noise and music, I had almost thought I heard her say Baucher, and my blood froze for an instant before I realized that Boucher must be some picture in her father’s gallery. It was still a mystery why she thought I was an admirer of Boucher;—but there was no time to think about that: more guests were arriving, and Amelia was introducing me to a pleasantly plain young lady, a Miss Weatherly or Wherewithal or some such name. And then I was talking to Miss Wherewithal, and Amelia had gone on to the next guest;—I saw out of the corner of my eye that my father was still babbling at Colonel Goode, and was evidently prepared to continue babbling until the poor old man’s ears melted into a puddle in his collar.
Then there was dancing, and for once I was glad that my father had paid the dollar and a quarter extra to have me trained in the art at school. There was also much drinking; but I avoided any alcoholic liquors, the example of Snyder being still fresh in my mind. I danced with several ladies who had already drunk a little too much. I danced with Miss Wherewithal, who, like me, had avoided spirits (or so she said), but whose giddy awkwardness was as good a replacement for drunkenness as one could wish for. At last I danced with Amelia, and if all the divines of the world could have the same privilege, they would cease to manufacture imaginary heavens and acknowledge that paradise can be found on earth.
The music came to an end, and, as Miss Wherewithal appeared to be approaching, Amelia quickly said, rather louder than necessary, “Oh, Mr. Bousted, I did promise to show you the gallery, didn’t I?” This was enough to stop Miss Wherewithal, who turned away and began searching the room for other prospects. “Father appears to be engaged”—Amelia’s eyes flitted toward her father, who (mirabile dictu!) was now talking to mine in a happy and animated fashion—“so I suppose I shall have to take on the duty myself. It’s right through this way.”
She took my arm and led me to the edge of the room, nodding and exchanging greetings with various guests along the way, until we reached a pair of sliding doors, one of which she slid open just enough to admit the two of us, and then closed again.
We were in what was evidently the back parlor. The sounds of the ball were muffled, and the gas was turned down to a dim suggestion of light; but Amelia spoke even louder than she had done before.
“I venture to say there are few finer collections in Allegheny or Pittsburgh; one or two larger perhaps, but none chosen with such good taste. I think you will be favorably impressed, especially by some of the larger works.”
She was almost shouting in my ear, and I was filled with a sense that something very odd was happening. By the time we reached the pocket door at the other end of the room—which was only a few steps, but an infinite number of mental revolutions—I had persuaded myself that, whatever our true destination might be, it was certainly no picture gallery.
Amelia had fallen silent now, and she released my arm and pushed the door back. The room beyond was even dimmer, but as Amelia turned up the gas to a great chandelier in the middle of the room, the darkness dissipated, and the place revealed itself as—a picture gallery.
The walls were crowded with pictures of every sort, from every era. Old Colonel Goode might or might not have taste in art: I was no fit judge of that. But that he had money any fool could see. I knew nothing of paintings or artists (a deficiency I have since remedied), but merely in canvas and paint this gallery had to represent a considerable expenditure.
“The Boucher is over there,” Amelia said, speaking very softly now; and she walked over toward the opposite wall, with me following her closely. She stopped in front of the largest canvas in the room.
“La Belle Anglaise,” she announced, turning to face me.
It was a picture of a reclining nude, which in itself was very shocking to me at the time. Such things were not publicly exhibited in Allegheny or Pittsburgh at that remote era. I had heard of such pictures, but I knew them only by verbal descriptions. It was also more than a little embarrassing to look at the picture of a nude woman with another and far more beautiful woman judging my response. I tried not to show any of my discomfort, of course: instead, I attempted to absorb certain details that I might be able to mention from an artistic perspective. I remember especially noting the drapery: the woman was on a couch draped with abundant red velvet, and the texture of the velvet had been rendered with great skill. There at least was something I might be able to mention if called upon to render an opinion. More red was in the curtains behind her; a subtler, deeper shade of red, indicative of shadow.
“She was the mistress of a French duke,” Amelia explained. “He loved her passionately; but so, they say, did Boucher. I think from her expression you can tell which one she preferred.”
It was even stranger, and somehow deeply thrilling, to hear a woman talk of such things as the young men I knew—with the exception of Snyder, of course—mentioned only in hushed whispers.
“My father,” Amelia continued, “keeps the gallery closed off when we entertain. Some of the ladies are easily offended, and we have not seen the O’Haras for five years, because the mother and daughter both refuse to set foot in a house where such a picture exists. But you are not a prig.”
“No, of course not,” I agreed, stepping closer to the picture and examining it in detail, as if I were admiring the brushwork.
Amelia turned and stood close beside me, taking my arm. “I am not a prig either,” she said.
Suddenly I felt myself whirled around to face her, and a moment later her lips were pressed to mine with such force that I nearly stumbled backwards. My first instinct in the face of this unexpected assault was, absurdly, to raise my arms to defend myself; but in the event my arms rose only half way, and, as saner instincts took possession of me, my arms encircled Amelia, as hers did me, and we tightened our embrace. And all the while my mind was filled with the most ridiculous thoughts. Is this how kisses usually begin? Are my hands correctly positioned on her back, and should they be moving in some fashion? Are my lips what she was hoping they would be? Is my breath pleasant enough? Does a kiss normally involve quite so much of the mouth? Is it proper for me to break the contact first, or do I wait for her to move away? Will I be expected to make some appropriate remark afterward? Do I dare touch the bare flesh of her shoulder?
At last Amelia withdrew her lips from mine; but she did not break our embrace, and she rested her head on my shoulder. “Oh, Galahad—oh, dearest, dearest Galahad—I love you so madly! It’s foolish, absurd—I’ve known you such a short time—but I do love you; I loved you before I knew your name! When you wrote that you loved me, I kissed the letter a thousand times;—and then at night,—at night I laid it on my pillow, and kissed it a thousand times more. And I wished—how I wished!—that the letter might have been you. I don’t know what has made me the slave of passion, but I had to snatch this precious, fleeting moment to do what I’ve longed to do since you first passed me on Federal-street.—We must return to the ball soon—I can’t be missed—but, oh, Galahad, when you dance with Miss Weatherbee and all your other female admirers, I want you to remember
She pressed her lips to mine once more, with less violence, but with growing ardor; and I certainly cannot say that I was passive in our embrace.
When at last she withdrew, she led me by the arm back to the doorway; then, just as she was about to turn down the gas again, she turned for a moment and looked back toward the Boucher, and spoke a few words that engraved an indelible picture on my mind:
“I should like to be your Belle Anglaise.”
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.
Gertrude or Amelia?
The choice that faced me was difficult, but only because so much of the knowledge I wanted for making my decision was unknowable. I had to choose between Gertrude and Amelia; and, put that way, the choice must obviously be Amelia. Gertrude was pretty and pleasant, but Amelia was both the most beautiful girl in Allegheny and the richest. In my foolish youth I found her face more attractive than her money;—but I was not insensible to the attraction of her money.
Gertrude, however, was a bird in the hand. Was it reasonable to abandon the near certainty of Gertrude for the distant possibility of Amelia? It was certainly true that Amelia had said some very encouraging things to me; but was not the difference in our position an insuperable barrier to any hope of marriage? And, now that I was definitely known to her, the alternative to marriage that I had proposed to myself was clearly impossible. It was marriage or nothing. (Here the alert reader may have noticed that I did not consider the possibility of seduction. So little did I know of the ways of women in those youthful days that I supposed what I desired would never be willingly given, and must be taken either as a duty of marriage or by force.)
Yet, as I retired that evening, visions of Amelia’s beautiful face crowded every other thought out of my mind. I tried to summon up Gertrude to give her defense in the court of my imagination, but she refused my summons. Amelia was all I saw; Amelia was my only thought. In the darkness I was certain that my choice must be Amelia; and if perhaps it could have remained dark, I might have made my choice. But daylight brought back rational thought, and rational thought brought back doubts. Or perhaps the truth was simply that I had not yet given my soul completely over to darkness.
Daylight also brought an end to my brief respite from responsibility for the store. It was bad enough to have left it momentarily in Bradley’s hands, but I was certainly not such a fool as to leave him holding the reins two days running.
But in fact my worries were groundless.
I greeted him with my usual “Good morning, Mr. Bradley,” and he greeted me with his usual glassy gaze and inarticulate grunt. But then I turned immediately to the ledger, and I discovered that the receipts from the day before were not a whit diminished. In fact, we had done better than usually.
“We did very well yesterday,” I said to Bradley.
He looked at me, and then at the ledger, and nodded, or perhaps merely twitched his head.
“I ought to say, you did very well, Mr. Bradley,” I added, trying to encourage him to say something. But there was no sound from him.
“Well, I’m very pleased,” I continued. “Father, look at this. The store did quite well with Bradley in charge.”
“First-rate!” my father opined, without really looking at the numbers on the page at all.
So I began to discover one more facet of this Bradley: he was very much less of a fool when I was not near by. In fact, as the day wore on, two regular patrons stopped in to tell me how well “the new man” had done in serving them yesterday. The thing puzzled me a little at first, but I suppose I had no reason to be puzzled. I had taken care that he should fear me at our first meeting. The stratagem was perfectly justified under the circumstances, but I ought not to wonder that the impression I had made on him then had lingered. At any rate, I resolved to experiment a little more with my brother-in-law. He might prove more useful than I had anticipated.
As for Gertrude, it astonishes me now to relate that I actually lost sleep over her. I even felt some remorse—I blush to recall it now, but I did—at the thought of rejecting her after having given her every indication that I intended to marry her. In extenuation I can only plead my extreme youth. I had assumed the responsibilities of a life devoted to wickedness at a time of life when the temptations to good are multifarious and incessant.
All day in the store, my mind revolved the one great question: Gertrude or Amelia? —I do not mean to say that I was negligent: none of the clerks’ wives and superannuated spinsters who came to have their writing classified would have surmised that my mind was elsewhere. I gave them the service they expected, looking directly into their eyes as I explained to them where their writing fitted on the Bousted scale. Yet still I was plagued by that dreadful indecision. Gertrude or Amelia? Amelia the perfect beauty, or Gertrude the delightful companion? Amelia the rich and far above me, or Gertrude the poor but within my grasp?
I continued my inward battle as my father and I rode the horse-car back to Allegheny, and I had nearly reached the conclusion that it must be Gertrude. In my young and inexperienced mind it seemed the more reasonable choice. Taking into account my own more and more urgent desires, a speedy union appeared to be almost a necessity; it could very probably be effected with Gertrude, but with Amelia I had only begun an acquaintance which, reason told me, could not be very likely to terminate in marriage, so insuperable did the gap between us seem.
Such were my thoughts when I returned to our house to find a letter from Amelia. I knew at once that it had come because Viola accosted me as I was still taking off my coat.
“A letter came for you,” she announced with that artificial lilt that I verily believe can be produced only by an older sister, “from your friend Miss Goode.” She pronounced the word friend as though it could carry a heavier load of innuendo than any other word in the English language.
“Probably inquiring after my health,” I replied; and I took the letter with a great show of indifference, nor did I open it until well after supper, when I was alone in my own room.
She did inquire after my health, but there was more to the letter than that. I have kept the letter, and I will insert it here at length, so that, in my own future perusal of this chapter in my life, I may feel yet again the thrill of reading Amelia’s own words.
Dear Mr. Bousted,——
In a moment of weakness, I made a confession which I ought perhaps not to have made; but since I have already laid indiscretion upon imprudence, it would be futile to pretend I had said nothing. Nor would I be showing reasonable gratitude to one to whom I owe so much—perhaps my very life—if I were at all dishonest with you.
I write to express that gratitude to you once again, but also in the hope of continuing that acquaintance which my imprudence has so happily purchased for me, though at such a painful cost to yourself.
Oh! Mr. Bousted, you must think me the most selfish creature in the world, but I am glad that such a ruffian accosted me—I dare even to say that I am glad that you were injured, if it gained for me the privilege of tending to your injuries. Of course I hope you are well now, and I could never truly wish you harm; but I struggle to express how much I hope for another visit from you. If you can find it in your heart to forgive my folly, and now my impertinence as well, I pray you write to me, and tell me that, somehow, you will see me again.
This marvelous, this astonishing letter was written on two sheets of Bousted’s Grade 8 and signed simply “Amelia Goode.” The No. 8 is a very good match for her careful, yet confident, writing, showing that the sales clerk at Boggs & Buhl (where she must have bought it, since I should certainly have remembered if she had come to my store) had indeed mastered the elements of my system.
Until I read Amelia’s letter, I had been very nearly certain that the victory must go to Gertrude; now it was quite clear that Amelia must be my choice. If she was of such a mind as to write such a letter as this, surely my battle was already half-won; the walls were breached which a moment before had seemed impregnable.
I did not hesitate, therefore, but immediately took pen in hand and dashed off a reply. I have not a copy by me, for in my haste I took no time to copy it out; but I recall telling her that I was as glad of our meeting as she was, and that I had not ceased to be astonished by the singular good fortune which had brought us together; and, having subjoined such words of flattery as came most naturally to my unskilled pen, I closed with a wish to see her at the earliest possible moment.
After that letter, I composed another, this one addressed to Gertrude Snyder. This second letter was very short: I said nothing but that I should like to see her the next evening, as I had something particular to say to her.
In these transactions it is very possible that my youth and inexperience served me well. If I were doing the same thing to-day, I should not have let go of the bird in the hand until I had definitely captured the one in the bush. I should have kept Gertrude supposing that I was within days of asking for her hand. My eagerness to pursue a connection with Amelia, however, led me to cast Gertrude aside; she was now an encumbrance of which I wished to rid myself at the earliest opportunity. How fortunate it seemed now that I had not made any definite proposal to her!
Yet it was not a pleasant prospect to me, this meeting with Gertrude. I received a note from her the next day agreeing that we must speak, and suggesting a walk in the park as suitable to that purpose; and it was, if you can credit the assertion, only as I read her note that I realized she must be expecting me to propose marriage at last! “I had something particular to say to her,” I had told her in my letter. What else could such words indicate to a young lady?
It was therefore my mission to dash Gertrude’s hopes just when I had raised them to the highest peak. That seemed very hard—very hard indeed. Only a fortifying dose of Baucher gave me the courage to keep our appointment.
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in October, and the park was more than usually filled with strollers and promenaders. Gertrude was waiting for me at our usual meeting-place on the south end of the bridge. I could not help seeing that she was a beautiful girl; if there had been no Amelia, I might have considered myself uncommonly fortunate to have Gertrude. But there was an Amelia;—I reminded myself of that.
“It’s a very fine afternoon,” Gertrude remarked as we began strolling together.
“Very fine indeed,” I agreed.
“I think it’s uncommonly warm for so late in the season,” she added.
“It is,” I said; and then, feeling as though I ought to say something more, I added, “but it might well be the last warm day before the cold weather sets in.”
These observations are exceedingly dull to record, but the weather furnished us with the theme for our discourse over the next quarter-hour or so; and to talk about the weather with a beautiful girl on a fine October afternoon, with the colored leaves tumbling through the air all around, is as great a pleasure as any I can think of at the moment,—if only the sword of Damocles is not hanging over your conversation.
At last we came to the base of the monument, which, from its situation away from the main-traveled paths and somewhat below the bridge, afforded us a little measure of privacy; and here I had determined to make my speech, which I had prepared and rehearsed beforehand.
“Gertrude,” I began, “when I wrote to you yesterday, I said that I had——”
“Newman, please,” she said suddenly, quite uncharacteristically cutting me off. “I know already what you intend to say to me.”
“I really don’t think——”
“I do, Newman.” Her words began to pour out in a torrent; she was more animated than I had ever seen her, and there was simply no possibility of interrupting her. “Did you think I hadn’t seen you working up your courage—thinking over what you would say to me? Oh, Newman, I have seen how you look at me, and heard how your voice changes when you speak to me, and though you may think your heart has secrets, I know them all, my poor man! And I knew that this moment would come, and I struggled with myself—what would I say? how would I answer?—and, oh, how I wished, how I prayed that I could make you happy, for I never met a man more deserving, more worthy, but oh!—Newman, I cannot marry you! I ought to marry you, I ought to love you with my whole heart, but—but I love another!” At this her tears began to flow, but she went on with hardly a pause for breath. “I love another! I have been false to you all these months, hoping and praying that my heart would change, that I could give you the answer you deserve, and the answer all reason tells me I ought to give you, but no,—my heart will not obey reason, and it must love one who I am sure is infinitely less worthy, but,—but he is a good man, Newman, and I do love him!”
At this her tears overcame her completely, and she hid her face in her hands, leaving me standing at sixes and sevens for the moment, wondering what the passers-by must be thinking of me.
But on the whole the conversation had been completely satisfactory from my point of view. Instead of cruelly dashing a young girl’s hopes, I was now in a position to show grace and nobility in the face of rejection.
“My dear Gertrude,” I said gently and quietly, as though my heart were breaking but I had determined to suppress my feelings, “no man worthy of that name could ever wish anything before your happiness. I don’t deny—it would be futile to deny—my own feelings of disappointment. But that same strong regard for you which causes my disappointment compels me always to put your happiness before my own. If you are happy, I am happy; and if my happiness is admittedly imperfect, still it is genuine for all that.”
This was a very pretty speech, don’t you think? I was quite proud of it. It had its desired effect on Gertrude, who wept all the more and declared that I must be some sort of angel, and perhaps she ought to——but here I cut her off, lest she be tempted to reconsider. I told her frankly that she must follow her heart, and that, if she had any regard for my happiness as well as hers, she must not allow any mistaken sympathy for me to cloud her judgment; for surely I could never be happy in possession of a heart that could never be truly mine, and it was better for me in the long run to endure disappointment now, however it might sting, than to live a life of misery.
When at last we parted, she had recovered marvelously, and was actually smiling that rare and beautiful smile of hers, which for a moment almost made me regret that I had got rid of her so easily. She promised that she would ever be a true friend to me, and of course I promised her the same. Then she turned and left me.
I did not walk home with her as I usually did; but I did stand and watch as she walked away, calculating that it might be better to be seen gazing after her with regret if she should happen to look backward. In the event, however, she did not look backward.
Thus did I rid myself of Gertrude, and I was free to turn my attention completely to the conquest of Amelia. And so I did;—or, rather, nearly completely. I was distracted for some little time by a scheme for disposing of my elder sister.