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The best of ghost stories from Edith Wharton, including: The Bolted Door, His Father's Son, The Daunt Diana, The Debt, Full Circle, The Legend, The Eyes, The Blond Beast, Afterward, The Letters.
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Tales of Men and Ghosts
THE BOLTED DOOR
HUBERT GRANICE, pacing the length of his pleasant lamp-lit library, paused to compare his watch with the clock on the chimney-piece.
Three minutes to eight.
In exactly three minutes Mr. Peter Ascham, of the eminent legal firm of Ascham and Pettilow, would have his punctual hand on the door-bell of the flat. It was a comfort to reflect that Ascham was so punctual--the suspense was beginning to make his host nervous. And the sound of the door-bell would be the beginning of the end--after that there'd be no going back, by God--no going back!
Granice resumed his pacing. Each time he reached the end of the room opposite the door he caught his reflection in the Florentine mirror above the fine old walnut credence he had picked up at Dijon--saw himself spare, quick-moving, carefully brushed and dressed, but furrowed, gray about the temples, with a stoop which he corrected by a spasmodic straightening of the shoulders whenever a glass confronted him: a tired middle-aged man, baffled, beaten, worn out.
As he summed himself up thus for the third or fourth time the door opened and he turned with a thrill of relief to greet his guest. But it was only the man-servant who entered, advancing silently over the mossy surface of the old Turkey rug.
"Mr. Ascham telephones, sir, to say he's unexpectedly detained and can't be here till eight-thirty."
Granice made a curt gesture of annoyance. It was becoming harder and harder for him to control these reflexes. He turned on his heel, tossing to the servant over his shoulder: "Very good. Put off dinner."
Down his spine he felt the man's injured stare. Mr. Granice had always been so mild-spoken to his people--no doubt the odd change in his manner had already been noticed and discussed below stairs. And very likely they suspected the cause. He stood drumming on the writing-table till he heard the servant go out; then he threw himself into a chair, propping his elbows on the table and resting his chin on his locked hands.
Another half hour alone with it!
He wondered irritably what could have detained his guest. Some professional matter, no doubt--the punctilious lawyer would have allowed nothing less to interfere with a dinner engagement, more especially since Granice, in his note, had said: "I shall want a little business chat afterward."
But what professional matter could have come up at that unprofessional hour? Perhaps some other soul in misery had called on the lawyer; and, after all, Granice's note had given no hint of his own need! No doubt Ascham thought he merely wanted to make another change in his will. Since he had come into his little property, ten years earlier, Granice had been perpetually tinkering with his will.
Suddenly another thought pulled him up, sending a flush to his sallow temples. He remembered a word he had tossed to the lawyer some six weeks earlier, at the Century Club. "Yes--my play's as good as taken. I shall be calling on you soon to go over the contract. Those theatrical chaps are so slippery--I won't trust anybody but you to tie the knot for me!" That, of course, was what Ascham would think he was wanted for. Granice, at the idea, broke into an audible laugh--a queer stage-laugh, like the cackle of a baffled villain in a melodrama. The absurdity, the unnaturalness of the sound abashed him, and he compressed his lips angrily. Would he take to soliloquy next?
He lowered his arms and pulled open the upper drawer of the writing-table. In the right-hand corner lay a thick manuscript, bound in paper folders, and tied with a string beneath which a letter had been slipped. Next to the manuscript was a small revolver. Granice stared a moment at these oddly associated objects; then he took the letter from under the string and slowly began to open it. He had known he should do so from the moment his hand touched the drawer. Whenever his eye fell on that letter some relentless force compelled him to re-read it.
It was dated about four weeks back, under the letter-head of "The Diversity Theatre." "MY DEAR MR. GRANICE:
"I have given the matter my best consideration for the last month, and it's no use--the play won't do. I have talked it over with Miss Melrose--and you know there isn't a gamer artist on our stage--and I regret to tell you she feels just as I do about it. It isn't the poetry that scares her--or me either. We both want to do all we can to help along the poetic drama--we believe the public's ready for it, and we're willing to take a big financial risk in order to be the first to give them what they want. _But we don't believe they could be made to want this._ The fact is, there isn't enough drama in your play to the allowance of poetry--the thing drags all through. You've got a big idea, but it's not out of swaddling clothes.
"If this was your first play I'd say: Try again. But it has been just the same with all the others you've shown me. And you remember the result of 'The Lee Shore,' where you carried all the expenses of production yourself, and we couldn't fill the theatre for a week. Yet 'The Lee Shore' was a modern problem play--much easier to swing than blank verse. It isn't as if you hadn't tried all kinds--"
Granice folded the letter and put it carefully back into the envelope. Why on earth was he re-reading it, when he knew every phrase in it by heart, when for a month past he had seen it, night after night, stand out in letters of flame against the darkness of his sleepless lids?
"_It has been just the same with all the others you've shown me._"
That was the way they dismissed ten years of passionate unremitting work!
"_You remember the result of 'The Lee Shore.'_"
Good God--as if he were likely to forget it! He re-lived it all now in a drowning flash: the persistent rejection of the play, his sudden resolve to put it on at his own cost, to spend ten thousand dollars of his inheritance on testing his chance of success--the fever of preparation, the dry-mouthed agony of the "first night," the flat fall, the stupid press, his secret rush to Europe to escape the condolence of his friends!
"_It isn't as if you hadn't tried all kinds._"
No--he had tried all kinds: comedy, tragedy, prose and verse, the light curtain-raiser, the short sharp drama, the bourgeois-realistic and the lyrical-romantic--finally deciding that he would no longer "prostitute his talent" to win popularity, but would impose on the public his own theory of art in the form of five acts of blank verse. Yes, he had offered them everything--and always with the same result.
Ten years of it--ten years of dogged work and unrelieved failure. The ten years from forty to fifty--the best ten years of his life! And if one counted the years before, the silent years of dreams, assimilation, preparation--then call it half a man's life-time: half a man's life-time thrown away!
And what was he to do with the remaining half? Well, he had settled that, thank God! He turned and glanced anxiously at the clock. Ten minutes past eight--only ten minutes had been consumed in that stormy rush through his whole past! And he must wait another twenty minutes for Ascham. It was one of the worst symptoms of his case that, in proportion as he had grown to shrink from human company, he dreaded more and more to be alone. ... But why the devil was he waiting for Ascham? Why didn't he cut the knot himself? Since he was so unutterably sick of the whole business, why did he have to call in an outsider to rid him of this nightmare of living?
He opened the drawer again and laid his hand on the revolver. It was a small slim ivory toy--just the instrument for a tired sufferer to give himself a "hypodermic" with. Granice raised it slowly in one hand, while with the other he felt under the thin hair at the back of his head, between the ear and the nape. He knew just where to place the muzzle: he had once got a young surgeon to show him. And as he found the spot, and lifted the revolver to it, the inevitable phenomenon occurred. The hand that held the weapon began to shake, the tremor communicated itself to his arm, his heart gave a wild leap which sent up a wave of deadly nausea to his throat, he smelt the powder, he sickened at the crash of the bullet through his skull, and a sweat of fear broke out over his forehead and ran down his quivering face...
He laid away the revolver with an oath and, pulling out a cologne-scented handkerchief, passed it tremulously over his brow and temples. It was no use--he knew he could never do it in that way. His attempts at self-destruction were as futile as his snatches at fame! He couldn't make himself a real life, and he couldn't get rid of the life he had. And that was why he had sent for Ascham to help him...
The lawyer, over the Camembert and Burgundy, began to excuse himself for his delay.
"I didn't like to say anything while your man was about--but the fact is, I was sent for on a rather unusual matter--"
"Oh, it's all right," said Granice cheerfully. He was beginning to feel the usual reaction that food and company produced. It was not any recovered pleasure in life that he felt, but only a deeper withdrawal into himself. It was easier to go on automatically with the social gestures than to uncover to any human eye the abyss within him.
"My dear fellow, it's sacrilege to keep a dinner waiting--especially the production of an artist like yours." Mr. Ascham sipped his Burgundy luxuriously. "But the fact is, Mrs. Ashgrove sent for me."
Granice raised his head with a quick movement of surprise. For a moment he was shaken out of his self-absorption.
Ascham smiled. "I thought you'd be interested; I know your passion for causes celebres. And this promises to be one. Of course it's out of our line entirely--we never touch criminal cases. But she wanted to consult me as a friend. Ashgrove was a distant connection of my wife's. And, by Jove, it is a queer case!" The servant re-entered, and Ascham snapped his lips shut.
Would the gentlemen have their coffee in the dining-room?
"No--serve it in the library," said Granice, rising. He led the way back to the curtained confidential room. He was really curious to hear what Ascham had to tell him.
While the coffee and cigars were being served he fidgeted about the library, glancing at his letters--the usual meaningless notes and bills--and picking up the evening paper. As he unfolded it a headline caught his eye.
"ROSE MELROSE WANTS TO PLAY POETRY.
"THINKS SHE HAS FOUND HER POET."
He read on with a thumping heart--found the name of a young author he had barely heard of, saw the title of a play, a "poetic drama," dance before his eyes, and dropped the paper, sick, disgusted. It was true, then--she was "game"--it was not the manner but the matter she mistrusted!
Granice turned to the servant, who seemed to be purposely lingering. "I shan't need you this evening, Flint. I'll lock up myself."
He fancied the man's acquiescence implied surprise. What was going on, Flint seemed to wonder, that Mr. Granice should want him out of the way? Probably he would find a pretext for coming back to see. Granice suddenly felt himself enveloped in a network of espionage.
As the door closed he threw himself into an armchair and leaned forward to take a light from Ascham's cigar.
"Tell me about Mrs. Ashgrove," he said, seeming to himself to speak stiffly, as if his lips were cracked.
"Mrs. Ashgrove? Well, there's not much to tell."
"And you couldn't if there were?" Granice smiled.
"Probably not. As a matter of fact, she wanted my advice about her choice of counsel. There was nothing especially confidential in our talk."
"And what's your impression, now you've seen her?"
"My impression is, very distinctly, _that nothing will ever be known._"
"Ah--?" Granice murmured, puffing at his cigar.
"I'm more and more convinced that whoever poisoned Ashgrove knew his business, and will consequently never be found out. That's a capital cigar you've given me."
"You like it? I get them over from Cuba." Granice examined his own reflectively. "Then you believe in the theory that the clever criminals never are caught?"
"Of course I do. Look about you--look back for the last dozen years--none of the big murder problems are ever solved." The lawyer ruminated behind his blue cloud. "Why, take the instance in your own family: I'd forgotten I had an illustration at hand! Take old Joseph Lenman's murder--do you suppose that will ever be explained?"
As the words dropped from Ascham's lips his host looked slowly about the library, and every object in it stared back at him with a stale unescapable familiarity. How sick he was of looking at that room! It was as dull as the face of a wife one has wearied of. He cleared his throat slowly; then he turned his head to the lawyer and said: "I could explain the Lenman murder myself."
Ascham's eye kindled: he shared Granice's interest in criminal cases.
"By Jove! You've had a theory all this time? It's odd you never mentioned it. Go ahead and tell me. There are certain features in the Lenman case not unlike this Ashgrove affair, and your idea may be a help."
Granice paused and his eye reverted instinctively to the table drawer in which the revolver and the manuscript lay side by side. What if he were to try another appeal to Rose Melrose? Then he looked at the notes and bills on the table, and the horror of taking up again the lifeless routine of life--of performing the same automatic gestures another day--displaced his fleeting vision.
"I haven't a theory. I know who murdered Joseph Lenman."
Ascham settled himself comfortably in his chair, prepared for enjoyment.
"You _know?_ Well, who did?" he laughed.
"I did," said Granice, rising.
He stood before Ascham, and the lawyer lay back staring up at him. Then he broke into another laugh.
"Why, this is glorious! You murdered him, did you? To inherit his money, I suppose? Better and better! Go on, my boy! Unbosom yourself! Tell me all about it! Confession is good for the soul."
Granice waited till the lawyer had shaken the last peal of laughter from his throat; then he repeated doggedly: "I murdered him."
The two men looked at each other for a long moment, and this time Ascham did not laugh.
"I murdered him--to get his money, as you say."
There was another pause, and Granice, with a vague underlying sense of amusement, saw his guest's look change from pleasantry to apprehension.
"What's the joke, my dear fellow? I fail to see."
"It's not a joke. It's the truth. I murdered him." He had spoken painfully at first, as if there were a knot in his throat; but each time he repeated the words he found they were easier to say.
Ascham laid down his extinct cigar.
"What's the matter? Aren't you well? What on earth are you driving at?"
"I'm perfectly well. But I murdered my cousin, Joseph Lenman, and I want it known that I murdered him."
"_You want it known?_"
"Yes. That's why I sent for you. I'm sick of living, and when I try to kill myself I funk it." He spoke quite naturally now, as if the knot in his throat had been untied.
"Good Lord--good Lord," the lawyer gasped.
"But I suppose," Granice continued, "there's no doubt this would be murder in the first degree? I'm sure of the chair if I own up?"
Ascham drew a long breath; then he said slowly: "Sit down, Granice. Let's talk."
GRANICE told his story simply, connectedly.
He began by a quick survey of his early years--the years of drudgery and privation. His father, a charming man who could never say "no," had so signally failed to say it on certain essential occasions that when he died he left an illegitimate family and a mortgaged estate. His lawful kin found themselves hanging over a gulf of debt, and young Granice, to support his mother and sister, had to leave Harvard and bury himself at eighteen in a broker's office. He loathed his work, and he was always poor, always worried and in ill-health. A few years later his mother died, but his sister, an ineffectual neurasthenic, remained on his hands. His own health gave out, and he had to go away for six months, and work harder than ever when he came back. He had no knack for business, no head for figures, no dimmest insight into the mysteries of commerce. He wanted to travel and write--those were his inmost longings. And as the years dragged on, and he neared middle-age without making any more money, or acquiring any firmer health, a sick despair possessed him. He tried writing, but he always came home from the office so tired that his brain could not work. For half the year he did not reach his dim up-town flat till after dark, and could only "brush up" for dinner, and afterward lie on the lounge with his pipe, while his sister droned through the evening paper. Sometimes he spent an evening at the theatre; or he dined out, or, more rarely, strayed off with an acquaintance or two in quest of what is known as "pleasure." And in summer, when he and Kate went to the sea-side for a month, he dozed through the days in utter weariness. Once he fell in love with a charming girl--but what had he to offer her, in God's name? She seemed to like him, and in common decency he had to drop out of the running. Apparently no one replaced him, for she never married, but grew stoutish, grayish, philanthropic--yet how sweet she had been when he had first kissed her! One more wasted life, he reflected...
But the stage had always been his master-passion. He would have sold his soul for the time and freedom to write plays! It was _in him_--he could not remember when it had not been his deepest-seated instinct. As the years passed it became a morbid, a relentless obsession--yet with every year the material conditions were more and more against it. He felt himself growing middle-aged, and he watched the reflection of the process in his sister's wasted face. At eighteen she had been pretty, and as full of enthusiasm as he. Now she was sour, trivial, insignificant--she had missed her chance of life. And she had no resources, poor creature, was fashioned simply for the primitive functions she had been denied the chance to fulfil! It exasperated him to think of it--and to reflect that even now a little travel, a little health, a little money, might transform her, make her young and desirable... The chief fruit of his experience was that there is no such fixed state as age or youth--there is only health as against sickness, wealth as against poverty; and age or youth as the outcome of the lot one draws.
At this point in his narrative Granice stood up, and went to lean against the mantel-piece, looking down at Ascham, who had not moved from his seat, or changed his attitude of rigid fascinated attention.
"Then came the summer when we went to Wrenfield to be near old Lenman--my mother's cousin, as you know. Some of the family always mounted guard over him--generally a niece or so. But that year they were all scattered, and one of the nieces offered to lend us her cottage if we'd relieve her of duty for two months. It was a nuisance for me, of course, for Wrenfield is two hours from town; but my mother, who was a slave to family observances, had always been good to the old man, so it was natural we should be called on--and there was the saving of rent and the good air for Kate. So we went.
"You never knew Joseph Lenman? Well, picture to yourself an amoeba or some primitive organism of that sort, under a Titan's microscope. He was large, undifferentiated, inert--since I could remember him he had done nothing but take his temperature and read the Churchman. Oh, and cultivate melons--that was his hobby. Not vulgar, out-of-door melons--his were grown under glass. He had miles of it at Wrenfield--his big kitchen-garden was surrounded by blinking battalions of green-houses. And in nearly all of them melons were grown--early melons and late, French, English, domestic--dwarf melons and monsters: every shape, colour and variety. They were petted and nursed like children--a staff of trained attendants waited on them. I'm not sure they didn't have a doctor to take their temperature--at any rate the place was full of thermometers. And they didn't sprawl on the ground like ordinary melons; they were trained against the glass like nectarines, and each melon hung in a net which sustained its weight and left it free on all sides to the sun and air...
"It used to strike me sometimes that old Lenman was just like one of his own melons--the pale-fleshed English kind. His life, apathetic and motionless, hung in a net of gold, in an equable warm ventilated atmosphere, high above sordid earthly worries. The cardinal rule of his existence was not to let himself be 'worried.' . . I remember his advising me to try it myself, one day when I spoke to him about Kate's bad health, and her need of a change. 'I never let myself worry,' he said complacently. 'It's the worst thing for the liver--and you look to me as if you had a liver. Take my advice and be cheerful. You'll make yourself happier and others too.' And all he had to do was to write a cheque, and send the poor girl off for a holiday!
"The hardest part of it was that the money half-belonged to us already. The old skin-flint only had it for life, in trust for us and the others. But his life was a good deal sounder than mine or Kate's--and one could picture him taking extra care of it for the joke of keeping us waiting. I always felt that the sight of our hungry eyes was a tonic to him.
"Well, I tried to see if I couldn't reach him through his vanity. I flattered him, feigned a passionate interest in his melons. And he was taken in, and used to discourse on them by the hour. On fine days he was driven to the green-houses in his pony-chair, and waddled through them, prodding and leering at the fruit, like a fat Turk in his seraglio. When he bragged to me of the expense of growing them I was reminded of a hideous old Lothario bragging of what his pleasures cost. And the resemblance was completed by the fact that he couldn't eat as much as a mouthful of his melons--had lived for years on buttermilk and toast. 'But, after all, it's my only hobby--why shouldn't I indulge it?' he said sentimentally. As if I'd ever been able to indulge any of mine! On the keep of those melons Kate and I could have lived like gods...
"One day toward the end of the summer, when Kate was too unwell to drag herself up to the big house, she asked me to go and spend the afternoon with cousin Joseph. It was a lovely soft September afternoon--a day to lie under a Roman stone-pine, with one's eyes on the sky, and let the cosmic harmonies rush through one. Perhaps the vision was suggested by the fact that, as I entered cousin Joseph's hideous black walnut library, I passed one of the under-gardeners, a handsome full-throated Italian, who dashed out in such a hurry that he nearly knocked me down. I remember thinking it queer that the fellow, whom I had often seen about the melon-houses, did not bow to me, or even seem to see me.
"Cousin Joseph sat in his usual seat, behind the darkened windows, his fat hands folded on his protuberant waistcoat, the last number of the Churchman at his elbow, and near it, on a huge dish, a fat melon--the fattest melon I'd ever seen. As I looked at it I pictured the ecstasy of contemplation from which I must have roused him, and congratulated myself on finding him in such a mood, since I had made up my mind to ask him a favour. Then I noticed that his face, instead of looking as calm as an egg-shell, was distorted and whimpering--and without stopping to greet me he pointed passionately to the melon.
"'Look at it, look at it--did you ever see such a beauty? Such firmness--roundness--such delicious smoothness to the touch?' It was as if he had said 'she' instead of 'it,' and when he put out his senile hand and touched the melon I positively had to look the other way.
"Then he told me what had happened. The Italian under-gardener, who had been specially recommended for the melon-houses--though it was against my cousin's principles to employ a Papist--had been assigned to the care of the monster: for it had revealed itself, early in its existence, as destined to become a monster, to surpass its plumpest, pulpiest sisters, carry off prizes at agricultural shows, and be photographed and celebrated in every gardening paper in the land. The Italian had done well--seemed to have a sense of responsibility. And that very morning he had been ordered to pick the melon, which was to be shown next day at the county fair, and to bring it in for Mr. Lenman to gaze on its blonde virginity. But in picking it, what had the damned scoundrelly Jesuit done but drop it--drop it crash on the sharp spout of a watering-pot, so that it received a deep gash in its firm pale rotundity, and was henceforth but a bruised, ruined, fallen melon?
"The old man's rage was fearful in its impotence--he shook, spluttered and strangled with it. He had just had the Italian up and had sacked him on the spot, without wages or character--had threatened to have him arrested if he was ever caught prowling about Wrenfield. 'By God, and I'll do it--I'll write to Washington--I'll have the pauper scoundrel deported! I'll show him what money can do!' As likely as not there was some murderous Black-hand business under it--it would be found that the fellow was a member of a 'gang.' Those Italians would murder you for a quarter. He meant to have the police look into it... And then he grew frightened at his own excitement. 'But I must calm myself,' he said. He took his temperature, rang for his drops, and turned to the Churchman. He had been reading an article on Nestorianism when the melon was brought in. He asked me to go on with it, and I read to him for an hour, in the dim close room, with a fat fly buzzing stealthily about the fallen melon.
"All the while one phrase of the old man's buzzed in my brain like the fly about the melon. '_I'll show him what money can do!_' Good heaven! If I could but show the old man! If I could make him see his power of giving happiness as a new outlet for his monstrous egotism! I tried to tell him something about my situation and Kate's--spoke of my ill-health, my unsuccessful drudgery, my longing to write, to make myself a name--I stammered out an entreaty for a loan. 'I can guarantee to repay you, sir--I've a half-written play as security...'
"I shall never forget his glassy stare. His face had grown as smooth as an egg-shell again--his eyes peered over his fat cheeks like sentinels over a slippery rampart.
"'A half-written play--a play of yours as security?' He looked at me almost fearfully, as if detecting the first symptoms of insanity. 'Do you understand anything of business?' he enquired mildly. I laughed and answered: 'No, not much.'
"He leaned back with closed lids. 'All this excitement has been too much for me,' he said. 'If you'll excuse me, I'll prepare for my nap.' And I stumbled out of the room, blindly, like the Italian."
Granice moved away from the mantel-piece, and walked across to the tray set out with decanters and soda-water. He poured himself a tall glass of soda-water, emptied it, and glanced at Ascham's dead cigar.
"Better light another," he suggested.
The lawyer shook his head, and Granice went on with his tale. He told of his mounting obsession--how the murderous impulse had waked in him on the instant of his cousin's refusal, and he had muttered to himself: "By God, if you won't, I'll make you." He spoke more tranquilly as the narrative proceeded, as though his rage had died down once the resolve to act on it was taken. He applied his whole mind to the question of how the old man was to be "disposed of." Suddenly he remembered the outcry: "Those Italians will murder you for a quarter!" But no definite project presented itself: he simply waited for an inspiration.
Granice and his sister moved to town a day or two after the incident of the melon. But the cousins, who had returned, kept them informed of the old man's condition. One day, about three weeks later, Granice, on getting home, found Kate excited over a report from Wrenfield. The Italian had been there again--had somehow slipped into the house, made his way up to the library, and "used threatening language." The house-keeper found cousin Joseph gasping, the whites of his eyes showing "something awful." The doctor was sent for, and the attack warded off; and the police had ordered the Italian from the neighbourhood.
But cousin Joseph, thereafter, languished, had "nerves," and lost his taste for toast and butter-milk. The doctor called in a colleague, and the consultation amused and excited the old man--he became once more an important figure. The medical men reassured the family--too completely!--and to the patient they recommended a more varied diet: advised him to take whatever "tempted him." And so one day, tremulously, prayerfully, he decided on a tiny bit of melon. It was brought up with ceremony, and consumed in the presence of the house-keeper and a hovering cousin; and twenty minutes later he was dead...
"But you remember the circumstances," Granice went on; "how suspicion turned at once on the Italian? In spite of the hint the police had given him he had been seen hanging about the house since 'the scene.' It was said that he had tender relations with the kitchen-maid, and the rest seemed easy to explain. But when they looked round to ask him for the explanation he was gone--gone clean out of sight. He had been 'warned' to leave Wrenfield, and he had taken the warning so to heart that no one ever laid eyes on him again."
Granice paused. He had dropped into a chair opposite the lawyer's, and he sat for a moment, his head thrown back, looking about the familiar room. Everything in it had grown grimacing and alien, and each strange insistent object seemed craning forward from its place to hear him.
"It was I who put the stuff in the melon," he said. "And I don't want you to think I'm sorry for it. This isn't 'remorse,' understand. I'm glad the old skin-flint is dead--I'm glad the others have their money. But mine's no use to me any more. My sister married miserably, and died. And I've never had what I wanted."
Ascham continued to stare; then he said: "What on earth was your object, then?"
"Why, to get what I wanted--what I fancied was in reach! I wanted change, rest, _life_, for both of us--wanted, above all, for myself, the chance to write! I travelled, got back my health, and came home to tie myself up to my work. And I've slaved at it steadily for ten years without reward--without the most distant hope of success! Nobody will look at my stuff. And now I'm fifty, and I'm beaten, and I know it." His chin dropped forward on his breast. "I want to chuck the whole business," he ended.
IT was after midnight when Ascham left.
His hand on Granice's shoulder, as he turned to go--"District Attorney be hanged; see a doctor, see a doctor!" he had cried; and so, with an exaggerated laugh, had pulled on his coat and departed.
Granice turned back into the library. It had never occurred to him that Ascham would not believe his story. For three hours he had explained, elucidated, patiently and painfully gone over every detail--but without once breaking down the iron incredulity of the lawyer's eye.
At first Ascham had feigned to be convinced--but that, as Granice now perceived, was simply to get him to expose himself, to entrap him into contradictions. And when the attempt failed, when Granice triumphantly met and refuted each disconcerting question, the lawyer dropped the mask suddenly, and said with a good-humoured laugh: "By Jove, Granice you'll write a successful play yet. The way you've worked this all out is a marvel."
Granice swung about furiously--that last sneer about the play inflamed him. Was all the world in a conspiracy to deride his failure?
"I did it, I did it," he muttered sullenly, his rage spending itself against the impenetrable surface of the other's mockery; and Ascham answered with a smile: "Ever read any of those books on hallucination? I've got a fairly good medico-legal library. I could send you one or two if you like..."
Left alone, Granice cowered down in the chair before his writing-table. He understood that Ascham thought him off his head.
"Good God--what if they all think me crazy?"
The horror of it broke out over him in a cold sweat--he sat there and shook, his eyes hidden in his icy hands. But gradually, as he began to rehearse his story for the thousandth time, he saw again how incontrovertible it was, and felt sure that any criminal lawyer would believe him.
"That's the trouble--Ascham's not a criminal lawyer. And then he's a friend. What a fool I was to talk to a friend! Even if he did believe me, he'd never let me see it--his instinct would be to cover the whole thing up... But in that case--if he did believe me--he might think it a kindness to get me shut up in an asylum..." Granice began to tremble again. "Good heaven! If he should bring in an expert--one of those damned alienists! Ascham and Pettilow can do anything--their word always goes. If Ascham drops a hint that I'd better be shut up, I'll be in a strait-jacket by to-morrow! And he'd do it from the kindest motives--be quite right to do it if he thinks I'm a murderer!"
The vision froze him to his chair. He pressed his fists to his bursting temples and tried to think. For the first time he hoped that Ascham had not believed his story.
"But he did--he did! I can see it now--I noticed what a queer eye he cocked at me. Good God, what shall I do--what shall I do?"
He started up and looked at the clock. Half-past one. What if Ascham should think the case urgent, rout out an alienist, and come back with him? Granice jumped to his feet, and his sudden gesture brushed the morning paper from the table. Mechanically he stooped to pick it up, and the movement started a new train of association.
He sat down again, and reached for the telephone book in the rack by his chair.
"Give me three-o-ten ... yes."
The new idea in his mind had revived his flagging energy. He would act--act at once. It was only by thus planning ahead, committing himself to some unavoidable line of conduct, that he could pull himself through the meaningless days. Each time he reached a fresh decision it was like coming out of a foggy weltering sea into a calm harbour with lights. One of the queerest phases of his long agony was the intense relief produced by these momentary lulls.
"That the office of the _Investigator?_ Yes? Give me Mr. Denver, please... Hallo, Denver... Yes, Hubert Granice. ... Just caught you? Going straight home? Can I come and see you ... yes, now ... have a talk? It's rather urgent ... yes, might give you some first-rate 'copy.' ... All right!" He hung up the receiver with a laugh. It had been a happy thought to call up the editor of the _Investigator_--Robert Denver was the very man he needed...
Granice put out the lights in the library--it was odd how the automatic gestures persisted!--went into the hall, put on his hat and overcoat, and let himself out of the flat. In the hall, a sleepy elevator boy blinked at him and then dropped his head on his folded arms. Granice passed out into the street. At the corner of Fifth Avenue he hailed a crawling cab, and called out an up-town address. The long thoroughfare stretched before him, dim and deserted, like an ancient avenue of tombs. But from Denver's house a friendly beam fell on the pavement; and as Granice sprang from his cab the editor's electric turned the corner.
The two men grasped hands, and Denver, feeling for his latch-key, ushered Granice into the brightly-lit hall.
"Disturb me? Not a bit. You might have, at ten to-morrow morning ... but this is my liveliest hour ... you know my habits of old."
Granice had known Robert Denver for fifteen years--watched his rise through all the stages of journalism to the Olympian pinnacle of the _Investigator's_ editorial office. In the thick-set man with grizzling hair there were few traces left of the hungry-eyed young reporter who, on his way home in the small hours, used to "bob in" on Granice, while the latter sat grinding at his plays. Denver had to pass Granice's flat on the way to his own, and it became a habit, if he saw a light in the window, and Granice's shadow against the blind, to go in, smoke a pipe, and discuss the universe.
"Well--this is like old times--a good old habit reversed." The editor smote his visitor genially on the shoulder. "Reminds me of the nights when I used to rout you out... How's the play, by the way? There is a play, I suppose? It's as safe to ask you that as to say to some men: 'How's the baby?'"
Denver laughed good-naturedly, and Granice thought how thick and heavy he had grown. It was evident, even to Granice's tortured nerves, that the words had not been uttered in malice--and the fact gave him a new measure of his insignificance. Denver did not even know that he had been a failure! The fact hurt more than Ascham's irony.
"Come in--come in." The editor led the way into a small cheerful room, where there were cigars and decanters. He pushed an arm-chair toward his visitor, and dropped into another with a comfortable groan.
"Now, then--help yourself. And let's hear all about it."
He beamed at Granice over his pipe-bowl, and the latter, lighting his cigar, said to himself: "Success makes men comfortable, but it makes them stupid."
Then he turned, and began: "Denver, I want to tell you--"
The clock ticked rhythmically on the mantel-piece. The room was gradually filled with drifting blue layers of smoke, and through them the editor's face came and went like the moon through a moving sky. Once the hour struck--then the rhythmical ticking began again. The atmosphere grew denser and heavier, and beads of perspiration began to roll from Granice's forehead.
"Do you mind if I open the window?"
"No. It is stuffy in here. Wait--I'll do it myself." Denver pushed down the upper sash, and returned to his chair. "Well--go on," he said, filling another pipe. His composure exasperated Granice.
"There's no use in my going on if you don't believe me."
The editor remained unmoved. "Who says I don't believe you? And how can I tell till you've finished?"
Granice went on, ashamed of his outburst. "It was simple enough, as you'll see. From the day the old man said to me, 'Those Italians would murder you for a quarter,' I dropped everything and just worked at my scheme. It struck me at once that I must find a way of getting to Wrenfield and back in a night--and that led to the idea of a motor. A motor--that never occurred to you? You wonder where I got the money, I suppose. Well, I had a thousand or so put by, and I nosed around till I found what I wanted--a second-hand racer. I knew how to drive a car, and I tried the thing and found it was all right. Times were bad, and I bought it for my price, and stored it away. Where? Why, in one of those no-questions-asked garages where they keep motors that are not for family use. I had a lively cousin who had put me up to that dodge, and I looked about till I found a queer hole where they took in my car like a baby in a foundling asylum... Then I practiced running to Wrenfield and back in a night. I knew the way pretty well, for I'd done it often with the same lively cousin--and in the small hours, too. The distance is over ninety miles, and on the third trial I did it under two hours. But my arms were so lame that I could hardly get dressed the next morning...
"Well, then came the report about the Italian's threats, and I saw I must act at once... I meant to break into the old man's room, shoot him, and get away again. It was a big risk, but I thought I could manage it. Then we heard that he was ill--that there'd been a consultation. Perhaps the fates were going to do it for me! Good Lord, if that could only be! ..."
Granice stopped and wiped his forehead: the open window did not seem to have cooled the room.
"Then came word that he was better; and the day after, when I came up from my office, I found Kate laughing over the news that he was to try a bit of melon. The house-keeper had just telephoned her--all Wrenfield was in a flutter. The doctor himself had picked out the melon, one of the little French ones that are hardly bigger than a large tomato--and the patient was to eat it at his breakfast the next morning.
"In a flash I saw my chance. It was a bare chance, no more. But I knew the ways of the house--I was sure the melon would be brought in over night and put in the pantry ice-box. If there were only one melon in the ice-box I could be fairly sure it was the one I wanted. Melons didn't lie around loose in that house--every one was known, numbered, catalogued. The old man was beset by the dread that the servants would eat them, and he took a hundred mean precautions to prevent it. Yes, I felt pretty sure of my melon ... and poisoning was much safer than shooting. It would have been the devil and all to get into the old man's bedroom without his rousing the house; but I ought to be able to break into the pantry without much trouble.
"It was a cloudy night, too--everything served me. I dined quietly, and sat down at my desk. Kate had one of her usual headaches, and went to bed early. As soon as she was gone I slipped out. I had got together a sort of disguise--red beard and queer-looking ulster. I shoved them into a bag, and went round to the garage. There was no one there but a half-drunken machinist whom I'd never seen before. That served me, too. They were always changing machinists, and this new fellow didn't even bother to ask if the car belonged to me. It was a very easy-going place...
"Well, I jumped in, ran up Broadway, and let the car go as soon as I was out of Harlem. Dark as it was, I could trust myself to strike a sharp pace. In the shadow of a wood I stopped a second and got into the beard and ulster. Then away again--it was just eleven-thirty when I got to Wrenfield.
"I left the car in a dark lane behind the Lenman place, and slipped through the kitchen-garden. The melon-houses winked at me through the dark--I remember thinking that they knew what I wanted to know. ... By the stable a dog came out growling--but he nosed me out, jumped on me, and went back... The house was as dark as the grave. I knew everybody went to bed by ten. But there might be a prowling servant--the kitchen-maid might have come down to let in her Italian. I had to risk that, of course. I crept around by the back door and hid in the shrubbery. Then I listened. It was all as silent as death. I crossed over to the house, pried open the pantry window and climbed in. I had a little electric lamp in my pocket, and shielding it with my cap I groped my way to the ice-box, opened it--and there was the little French melon ... only one.
"I stopped to listen--I was quite cool. Then I pulled out my bottle of stuff and my syringe, and gave each section of the melon a hypodermic. It was all done inside of three minutes--at ten minutes to twelve I was back in the car. I got out of the lane as quietly as I could, struck a back road that skirted the village, and let the car out as soon as I was beyond the last houses. I only stopped once on the way in, to drop the beard and ulster into a pond. I had a big stone ready to weight them with and they went down plump, like a dead body--and at two o'clock I was back at my desk."
Granice stopped speaking and looked across the smoke-fumes at his listener; but Denver's face remained inscrutable.
At length he said: "Why did you want to tell me this?"
The question startled Granice. He was about to explain, as he had explained to Ascham; but suddenly it occurred to him that if his motive had not seemed convincing to the lawyer it would carry much less weight with Denver. Both were successful men, and success does not understand the subtle agony of failure. Granice cast about for another reason.
"Why, I--the thing haunts me ... remorse, I suppose you'd call it..."
Denver struck the ashes from his empty pipe.
"Remorse? Bosh!" he said energetically.
Granice's heart sank. "You don't believe in--_remorse?_"
"Not an atom: in the man of action. The mere fact of your talking of remorse proves to me that you're not the man to have planned and put through such a job."
Granice groaned. "Well--I lied to you about remorse. I've never felt any."
Denver's lips tightened sceptically about his freshly-filled pipe. "What was your motive, then? You must have had one."
"I'll tell you--" And Granice began again to rehearse the story of his failure, of his loathing for life. "Don't say you don't believe me this time ... that this isn't a real reason!" he stammered out piteously as he ended.
Denver meditated. "No, I won't say that. I've seen too many queer things. There's always a reason for wanting to get out of life--the wonder is that we find so many for staying in!"
Granice's heart grew light. "Then you do believe me?" he faltered.
"Believe that you're sick of the job? Yes. And that you haven't the nerve to pull the trigger? Oh, yes--that's easy enough, too. But all that doesn't make you a murderer--though I don't say it proves you could never have been one."
"I have been one, Denver--I swear to you."
"Perhaps." He meditated. "Just tell me one or two things."
"Oh, go ahead. You won't stump me!" Granice heard himself say with a laugh.
"Well--how did you make all those trial trips without exciting your sister's curiosity? I knew your night habits pretty well at that time, remember. You were very seldom out late. Didn't the change in your ways surprise her?"
"No; because she was away at the time. She went to pay several visits in the country soon after we came back from Wrenfield, and was only in town for a night or two before--before I did the job."
"And that night she went to bed early with a headache?"
"Yes--blinding. She didn't know anything when she had that kind. And her room was at the back of the flat."
Denver again meditated. "And when you got back--she didn't hear you? You got in without her knowing it?"
"Yes. I went straight to my work--took it up at the word where I'd left off--_why, Denver, don't you remember?_" Granice suddenly, passionately interjected.
"Yes; how you found me--when you looked in that morning, between two and three ... your usual hour ...?"
"Yes," the editor nodded.
Granice gave a short laugh. "In my old coat--with my pipe: looked as if I'd been working all night, didn't I? Well, I hadn't been in my chair ten minutes!"
Denver uncrossed his legs and then crossed them again. "I didn't know whether you remembered that."
"My coming in that particular night--or morning."
Granice swung round in his chair. "Why, man alive! That's why I'm here now. Because it was you who spoke for me at the inquest, when they looked round to see what all the old man's heirs had been doing that night--you who testified to having dropped in and found me at my desk as usual. ... I thought that would appeal to your journalistic sense if nothing else would!"
Denver smiled. "Oh, my journalistic sense is still susceptible enough--and the idea's picturesque, I grant you: asking the man who proved your alibi to establish your guilt."
"That's it--that's it!" Granice's laugh had a ring of triumph.
"Well, but how about the other chap's testimony--I mean that young doctor: what was his name? Ned Ranney. Don't you remember my testifying that I'd met him at the elevated station, and told him I was on my way to smoke a pipe with you, and his saying: 'All right; you'll find him in. I passed the house two hours ago, and saw his shadow against the blind, as usual.' And the lady with the toothache in the flat across the way: she corroborated his statement, you remember."
"Yes; I remember."
"Simple enough. Before starting I rigged up a kind of mannikin with old coats and a cushion--something to cast a shadow on the blind. All you fellows were used to seeing my shadow there in the small hours--I counted on that, and knew you'd take any vague outline as mine."
"Simple enough, as you say. But the woman with the toothache saw the shadow move--you remember she said she saw you sink forward, as if you'd fallen asleep."
"Yes; and she was right. It did move. I suppose some extra-heavy dray must have jolted by the flimsy building--at any rate, something gave my mannikin a jar, and when I came back he had sunk forward, half over the table."
There was a long silence between the two men. Granice, with a throbbing heart, watched Denver refill his pipe. The editor, at any rate, did not sneer and flout him. After all, journalism gave a deeper insight than the law into the fantastic possibilities of life, prepared one better to allow for the incalculableness of human impulses.
"Well?" Granice faltered out.
Denver stood up with a shrug. "Look here, man--what's wrong with you? Make a clean breast of it! Nerves gone to smash? I'd like to take you to see a chap I know--an ex-prize-fighter--who's a wonder at pulling fellows in your state out of their hole--"
"Oh, oh--" Granice broke in. He stood up also, and the two men eyed each other. "You don't believe me, then?"
"This yarn--how can I? There wasn't a flaw in your alibi."
"But haven't I filled it full of them now?"
Denver shook his head. "I might think so if I hadn't happened to know that you wanted to. There's the hitch, don't you see?"
Granice groaned. "No, I didn't. You mean my wanting to be found guilty--?"
"Of course! If somebody else had accused you, the story might have been worth looking into. As it is, a child could have invented it. It doesn't do much credit to your ingenuity."
Granice turned sullenly toward the door. What was the use of arguing? But on the threshold a sudden impulse drew him back. "Look here, Denver--I daresay you're right. But will you do just one thing to prove it? Put my statement in the _Investigator_, just as I've made it. Ridicule it as much as you like. Only give the other fellows a chance at it--men who don't know anything about me. Set them talking and looking about. I don't care a damn whether you believe me--what I want is to convince the Grand Jury! I oughtn't to have come to a man who knows me--your cursed incredulity is infectious. I don't put my case well, because I know in advance it's discredited, and I almost end by not believing it myself. That's why I can't convince you. It's a vicious circle." He laid a hand on Denver's arm. "Send a stenographer, and put my statement in the paper."
But Denver did not warm to the idea. "My dear fellow, you seem to forget that all the evidence was pretty thoroughly sifted at the time, every possible clue followed up. The public would have been ready enough then to believe that you murdered old Lenman--you or anybody else. All they wanted was a murderer--the most improbable would have served. But your alibi was too confoundedly complete. And nothing you've told me has shaken it." Denver laid his cool hand over the other's burning fingers. "Look here, old fellow, go home and work up a better case--then come in and submit it to the Investigator."
THE perspiration was rolling off Granice's forehead. Every few minutes he had to draw out his handkerchief and wipe the moisture from his haggard face.
For an hour and a half he had been talking steadily, putting his case to the District Attorney. Luckily he had a speaking acquaintance with Allonby, and had obtained, without much difficulty, a private audience on the very day after his talk with Robert Denver. In the interval between he had hurried home, got out of his evening clothes, and gone forth again at once into the dreary dawn. His fear of Ascham and the alienist made it impossible for him to remain in his rooms. And it seemed to him that the only way of averting that hideous peril was by establishing, in some sane impartial mind, the proof of his guilt. Even if he had not been so incurably sick of life, the electric chair seemed now the only alternative to the strait-jacket.
As he paused to wipe his forehead he saw the District Attorney glance at his watch. The gesture was significant, and Granice lifted an appealing hand. "I don't expect you to believe me now--but can't you put me under arrest, and have the thing looked into?"
Allonby smiled faintly under his heavy grayish moustache. He had a ruddy face, full and jovial, in which his keen professional eyes seemed to keep watch over impulses not strictly professional.
"Well, I don't know that we need lock you up just yet. But of course I'm bound to look into your statement--"
Granice rose with an exquisite sense of relief. Surely Allonby wouldn't have said that if he hadn't believed him!
"That's all right. Then I needn't detain you. I can be found at any time at my apartment." He gave the address.
The District Attorney smiled again, more openly. "What do you say to leaving it for an hour or two this evening? I'm giving a little supper at Rector's--quiet, little affair, you understand: just Miss Melrose--I think you know her--and a friend or two; and if you'll join us..."
Granice stumbled out of the office without knowing what reply he had made.
He waited for four days--four days of concentrated horror. During the first twenty-four hours the fear of Ascham's alienist dogged him; and as that subsided, it was replaced by the exasperating sense that his avowal had made no impression on the District Attorney. Evidently, if he had been going to look into the case, Allonby would have been heard from before now. ... And that mocking invitation to supper showed clearly enough how little the story had impressed him!
Granice was overcome by the futility of any farther attempt to inculpate himself. He was chained to life--a "prisoner of consciousness." Where was it he had read the phrase? Well, he was learning what it meant. In the glaring night-hours, when his brain seemed ablaze, he was visited by a sense of his fixed identity, of his irreducible, inexpugnable _selfness_, keener, more insidious, more unescapable, than any sensation he had ever known. He had not guessed that the mind was capable of such intricacies of self-realization, of penetrating so deep into its own dark wind- ings. Often he woke from his brief snatches of sleep with the feeling that something material was clinging to him, was on his hands and face, and in his throat--and as his brain cleared he understood that it was the sense of his own loathed personality that stuck to him like some thick viscous substance.
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