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StocktonFrank R

HIS WIFE'S DECEASED SISTER"

    It is now five years since an event occurred which socolored my lifeor rather so changed some of its original colorsthat I havethought it well to write an account of itdeeming that its lessons may be ofadvantage to persons whose situations in life are similar to my own.

    When I was quite a young man I adopted literature as aprofessionand having passed through the necessary preparatory gradesI foundmyselfafter a good many years of hard and often unremunerative workinpossession of what might be called a fair literary practice. My articlesgravegaypracticalor fancifulhad come to be considered with a favor by theeditors of the various periodicals for which I wroteon which I found in time Icould rely with a very comfortable certainty. My productions created noenthusiasm in the reading public; they gave me no great reputation or veryvaluable pecuniary return; but they were always acceptedand my receipts fromthemat the time to which I have referredwere as regular and reliable as asalaryand quite sufficient to give me more than a comfortable support.

    It was at this time I married. I had been engaged for morethan a yearbut had not been willing to



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assume the support of a wife until I felt that my pecuniary position was soassured that I could do so with full satisfaction to my own conscience. Therewas now no doubt in regard to this positioneither in my mind or in that of mywife. I worked with great steadiness and regularityI knew exactly where toplace the productions of my penand could calculatewith a fair degree ofaccuracythe sums I should receive for them. We were by no means richbut wehad enoughand were thoroughly satisfied and content.

 

    Those of my readers who are married will have nodifficulty in remembering the peculiar ecstasy of the first weeks of theirwedded life. It is then that the flowers of this world bloom brightest; that itssun is the most genial; that its clouds are the scarcest; that its fruit is themost delicious; that the air is the most balmy; that its cigars are of thehighest flavor; that the warmth and radiance of early matrimonial felicity sorarefy the intellectual atmosphere that the soul mounts higherand enjoys awider prospectthan ever before.

    These experiences were mine. The plain claret of my mindwas changed to sparkling champagneand at the very height of its effervescenceI wrote a story. The happy thought that then struck me for a tale was of a verypeculiar characterand it interested me so much that I went to work at it withgreat delight and enthusiasmand finished it in a comparatively short time. Thetitle of the story was "His Wife's Deceased Sister" and when I readit to Hypatia she was delighted with itand at times was so affected by itspathos that her uncontrollable emotion caused a



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sympathetic dimness in my eyes which prevented my seeing the words I had written.When the reading was ended and my wife had dried her eyesshe turned to me andsaid"This story will make your fortune. There has been nothing sopathetic since Lamartine's `History of a Servant Girl.'"

 

    As soon as possible the next day I sent my story to theeditor of the periodical for which I wrote most frequentlyand in which my bestproductions generally appeared. In a few days I had a letter from the editorinwhich he praised my story as he had never before praised anything from my pen.It had interested and charmedhe saidnot only himselfbut all his associatesin the office. Even old Gibsonwho never cared to read anything until it was inproofand who never praised anything which had not a joke in itwas induced bythe example of the others to read this manuscriptand shedas he assertedthefirst tears that had come from his eyes since his final paternal castigationsome forty years before. The story would appearthe editor assured meas soonas he could possibly find room for it.

    If anything could make our skies more genialour flowersbrighterand the flavor of our fruit and cigars more deliciousit was a letterlike this. And whenin a very short timethe story was publishedwe foundthat the reading public was inclined to receive it with as much sympatheticinterest and favor as had been shown to it by the editors. My personal friendssoon began to express enthusiastic opinions upon it. It was highly praised inmany of the leading newspapersandaltogetherit was a great literarysuccess. I am not inclined to be vain of my writingsandin general



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my wife tells meI think too little of them. But I did feel a good deal ofpride and satisfaction in the success of "His Wife's Deceased Sister."If it did not make my fortuneas my wife asserted it wouldit certainly wouldhelp me very much in my literary career.

 

    In less than a month from the writing of this storysomething very unusual and unexpected happened to me. A manuscript was returnedby the editor of the periodical in which "His Wife's Deceased Sister"had appeared.

    "It is a good story" he wrote"but notequal to what you have just done. You have made a great hitand it would not doto interfere with the reputation you have gained by publishing anything inferiorto `His Wife's Deceased Sister' which has had such a deserved success."

    I was so unaccustomed to having my work thrown back on myhands that I think I must have turned a little pale when I read the letter. Isaid nothing of the matter to my wifefor it would be foolish to drop suchgrains of sand as this into the smoothly oiled machinery of our domesticfelicitybut I immediately sent the story to another editor. I am not able toexpress the astonishment I felt whenin the course of a weekit was sent backto me. The tone of the note accompanying it indicated a somewhat injured feelingon the part of the editor.

    "I am reluctant" he said"to decline amanuscript from you; but you know very well that if you sent me anything like`His Wife's Deceased Sister' it would be most promptly accepted."





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    I now felt obliged to speak of the affair to my wifewhowas quite as much surprisedthoughperhapsnot quite as much shockedas Ihad been.

    "Let us read the story again" she said"and see what is the matter with it." When we had finished its perusalHypatia remarked: "It is quite as good as many of the stories you have hadprintedand I think it very interestingalthoughof courseit is not equalto `His Wife's Deceased Sister.'"

    "Of course not" said I; "that was aninspiration that I cannot expect every day. But there must be something wrongabout this last story which we do not perceive. Perhaps my recent success mayhave made me a little careless in writing it."

    "I don't believe that" said Hypatia.

    "At any rate" I continued"I will lay itasideand will go to work on a new one."

    In due course of time I had another manuscript finishedand I sent it to my favorite periodical. It was retained some weeksand thencame back to me.

    "It will never do" the editor wrotequitewarmly"for you to go backward. The demand for the number containing `HisWife's Deceased Sister' still continuesand we do not intend to let youdisappoint that great body of readers who would be so eager to see anothernumber containing one of your stories."

    I sent this manuscript to four other periodicalsand fromeach of them it was returned with remarks to the effect thatalthough it wasnot a bad story in itselfit was not what they would expect from the author of"His Wife's Deceased Sister."

    The editor of a Western magazine wrote to me for



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a story to be published in a special number which he would issue for theholidays. I wrote him one of the character and length he desiredand sent it tohim. By return mail it came back to me.

 

    "I had hoped" the editor wrote"when Iasked for a story from your pento receive something like `His Wife's DeceasedSister' and I must own that I am very much disappointed."

    I was so filled with anger when I read this note that Iopenly objurgated "His Wife's Deceased Sister." "You must excuseme" I said to my astonished wife"for expressing myself thus in yourpresencebut that confounded story will be the ruin of me yet. Until it isforgotten nobody will ever take anything I write."

    "And you cannot expect it ever to be forgotten"said Hypatiawith tears in her eyes.

    It is needless for me to detail my literary efforts in thecourse of the next few months. The ideas of the editors with whom my principalbusiness had been donein regard to my literary abilityhad been so raised bymy unfortunate story of "His Wife's Deceased Sister" that I found itwas of no use to send them anything of lesser merit. And as to the otherjournals which I triedthey evidently considered it an insult for me to sendthem matter inferior to that by which my reputation had lately risen. The factwas that my successful story had ruined me. My income was at an endand wantactually stared me in the face; and I must admit that I did not like theexpression of its countenance. It was of no use for me to try to write anotherstory like "His Wife's Deceased Sister." I could not get married everytime I



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began a new manuscriptand it was the exaltation of mind caused by my weddedfelicity which produced that story.

 

    "It's perfectly dreadful!" said my wife. "IfI had had a sisterand she had diedI would have thought it was myfault."

    "It could not be your fault" I answered"and I do not think it was mine. I had no intention of deceiving anybodyinto the belief that I could do that sort of thing every timeand it ought notto be expected of me. Suppose Raphael's patrons had tried to keep him screwed upto the pitch of the Sistine Madonnaand had refused to buy anything which wasnot as good as that. In that case I think he would have occupied a much earlierand narrower grave than the one on which Mr. Morris Moore hangs his funeraldecorations."

    "Butmy dear" said Hypatiawho was posted onsuch subjects"the Sistine Madonna was one of his latest paintings."

    "Very true" said I. "But if he had marriedas I didhe would have painted it earlier."

    I was walking homeward one afternoon about this timewhenI met Barbela man I had known well in my early literary career. He was nowabout fifty years of agebut looked older. His hair and beard were quite grayand his clotheswhich were of the same general huegave me the idea that theylike his hairhad originally been black. Age is very hard on a man's externalappointments. Barbel had an air of having been to let for a long timeand quiteout of repair. But there was a kindly gleam in his eyeand he welcomed mecordially.





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    "Whywhat is the matterold fellow?" said he."I never saw you look so woe-begone."

    I had no reason to conceal anything from Barbel. In myyounger days he had been of great use to meand he had a right to know thestate of my affairs. I laid the whole case plainly before him.

    "Look here" he saidwhen I had finished;"come with me to my room; I have something I would like to say to you there."

    I followed Barbel to his room. It was at the top of a verydirty and well-worn housewhich stood in a narrow and lumpy streetinto whichfew vehicles ever penetratedexcept the ash and garbage-cartsand the ricketywagons of the venders of stale vegetables.

    "This is not exactly a fashionable promenade"said Barbelas we approached the house"but in some respects it remindsme of the streets in Italian townswhere the palaces lean over toward eachother in such a friendly way."

    Barbel's room wasto my mindrather more doleful thanthe street. It was darkit was dustyand cobwebs hung from every corner. Thefew chairs upon the floor and the books upon a greasy table seemed to beafflicted with some dorsal epidemicfor their backs were either gone or broken.A little bedstead in the corner was covered with a spread made of New York"Heralds" with their edges pasted together.

    "There is nothing better" said Barbelnoticingmy glance toward this novel counterpane"for a bed-covering thannewspapers; they keep you as warm as a blanketand are much lighter. I used touse `Tribunes' but they rattled too much."

    The only part of the room which was well lighted



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was one end near the solitary window. Hereupon a table with a spliced legstood a little grindstone.

 

    "At the other end of the room" said Barbel"is my cook-stovewhich you can't see unless I light the candle in thebottle which stands by it. But if you don't care particularly to examine itIwon't go to the expense of lighting up. You might pick up a good many odd piecesof bric-a-bracaround hereif you chose to strike a match and investigate. ButI would not advise you to do so. It would pay better to throw the things out ofthe window than to carry them down-stairs. The particular piece of indoordecoration to which I wish to call your attention is this." And he led meto a little wooden frame which hung against the wall near the window. Behind adusty piece of glass it held what appeared to be a leaf from a small magazine orjournal. "There" said he"you see a page from the `Grasshopper'a humorous paper which flourished in this city some half-dozen years ago. I usedto write regularly for that paperas you may remember."

    "Ohyesindeed!" I exclaimed. "And Ishall never forget your `Conundrum of the Anvil' which appeared in it. How oftenhave I laughed at that most wonderful conceitand how often have I put it to myfriends!"

    Barbel gazed at me silently for a momentand then hepointed to the frame. "That printed page" he said solemnly"containsthe `Conundrum of the Anvil.' I hang it there so that I can see it while I work.That conundrum ruined me. It was the last thing I wrote for the `Grasshopper.'How I ever came to imagine itI cannot tell. It is one of those things



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which occur to a man but once in a lifetime. After the wild shout of delightwith which the public greeted that conundrummy subsequent efforts met withhoots of derision. The `Grasshopper' turned its hind legs upon me. I sank frombad to worse-- much worse-- until at last I found myself reduced to mypresent occupationwhich is that of grinding points on pins. By this I procuremy breadcoffeeand tobaccoand sometimes potatoes and meat. One day while Iwas hard at workan organ-grinder came into the street below. He played theserenade from `Trovatore' and the familiar notes brought back visions of olddays and old delightswhen the successful writer wore good clothes and sat atoperaswhen he looked into sweet eyes and talked of Italian airswhen hisfuture appeared all a succession of bright scenery and joyous actswithout anyprovision for a drop-curtain. And as my ear listenedand my mind wandered inthis happy retrospectmy every faculty seemed exaltedandwithout any thoughtupon the matterI ground points upon my pins so fineso regularand so smooththat they would have pierced with ease the leather of a bootor slippedwithout abrasionamong the finest threads of rare old lace. When the organstoppedand I fell back into my real world of cobwebs and mustinessI gazedupon the pins I had just groundandwithout a moment's hesitationI threwthem into the streetand reported the lot as spoiled. This cost me a littlemoneybut it saved me my livelihood."

 

    After a few moments of silenceBarbel resumed:

    "I have no more to say to youmy young friend. All Iwant you to do is to look upon that framed conundrum



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then upon this grindstoneand then to go home and reflect. As for meI have agross of pins to grind before the sun goes down."

 

    I cannot say that my depression of mind was at allrelieved by what I had seen and heard. I had lost sight of Barbel for some yearsand I had supposed him still floating on the sun-sparkling stream of prosperitywhere I had last seen him. It was a great shock to me to find him in such acondition of poverty and squalorand to see a man who had originated the "Conundrumof the Anvil" reduced to the soul-depressing occupation of grindingpin-points. As I walked and thoughtthe dreadful picture of a totally eclipsedfuture arose before my mind. The moral of Barbel sank deep into my heart.

    When I reached home I told my wife the story of my friendBarbel. She listened with a sad and eager interest.

    "I am afraid" she said"if our fortunesdo not quickly mendthat we shall have to buy two little grindstones. You knowI could help you at that sort of thing."

    For a long time we sat together and talkedand devisedmany plans for the future. I did not think it necessary yet for me to look outfor a pin contract; but I must find some way of making moneyor we shouldstarve to death. Of coursethe first thing that suggested itself was thepossibility of finding some other business. Butapart from the difficulty ofimmediately obtaining remunerative work in occupations to which I had not beentrainedI felt a great and natural reluctance to give up a profession for whichI had carefully prepared myselfand which I



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had adopted as my life-work. It would be very hard for me to lay down my penforeverand to close the top of my inkstand upon all the bright and happyfancies which I had seen mirrored in its tranquil pool. We talked and ponderedthe rest of that day and a good deal of the nightbut we came to no conclusionas to what it would be best for us to do.

 

    The next day I determined to go and call upon the editorof the journal for whichin happier daysbefore the blight of "His Wife'sDeceased Sister" rested upon meI used most frequently to writeandhaving frankly explained my condition to himto ask his advice. The editor wasa good manand had always been my friend. He listened with great attention towhat I told himand evidently sympathized with me in my trouble.

    "As we have written to you" he said"theonly reason why we did not accept the manuscripts you sent us was that theywould have disappointed the high hopes that the public had formed in regard toyou. We have had letter after letter asking when we were going to publishanother story like `His Wife's Deceased Sister.' We feltand we still feelthat it would be wrong to allow you to destroy the fair fabric which youyourself have raised. But" he addedwith a kind smile"I see veryplainly that your well-deserved reputation will be of little advantage to you ifyou should starve at the moment that its genial beams areso to speaklightingyou up."

    "Its beams are not genial" I answered. "Theyhave scorched and withered me."

    "How would you like" said the editorafter ashort reflection"to allow us to publish the stories you have



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recently written under some other name than your own? That would satisfy us andthe publicwould put money in your pocketand would not interfere with yourreputation."

 

    Joyfully I seized the noble fellow by the handandinstantly accepted his proposition. "Of course" said I"areputation is a very good thing; but no reputation can take the place of foodclothesand a house to live inand I gladly agree to sink my over-illuminedname into oblivionand to appear before the public as a new and unknown writer."

    "I hope that need not be for long" he said"for I feel sure that you will yet write stories as good as `His Wife'sDeceased Sister.'"

    All the manuscripts I had on hand I now sent to my goodfriend the editorand in due and proper order they appeared in his journalunder the name of John Darmstadtwhich I had selected as a substitute for myownpermanently disabled. I made a similar arrangement with other editorsandJohn Darmstadt received the credit of everything that proceeded from my pen. Ourcircumstances now became very comfortableand occasionally we even allowedourselves to indulge in little dreams of prosperity.

    Time passed on very pleasantly. One yearanotherandthen a little son was born to us. It is often difficultI believeforthoughtful persons to decide whether the beginning of their conjugal careerorthe earliest weeks in the life of their first-bornbe the happiest and proudestperiod of their existence. For myself I can only say that the same exaltation ofmindthe same rarefication of idea and inventionwhich succeeded upon mywedding day came upon me



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now. As thenmy ecstatic emotions crystallized themselves into a motive for astoryand without delay I set myself to work upon it. My boy was about sixweeks old when the manuscript was finishedand one eveningas we sat before acomfortable fire in our sitting-roomwith the curtains drawnand the soft lamplightedand the baby sleeping soundly in the adjoining chamberI read thestory to my wife.

 

    When I had finishedmy wife arose and threw herself intomy arms. "I was never so proud of you" she saidher glad eyessparkling"as I am at this moment. That is a wonderful story! It isindeed I am sure it isjust as good as `His Wife's Deceased Sister.'"

    As she spoke these wordsa sudden and chilling sensationcrept over us both. All her warmth and fervorand the proud and happy glowengendered within me by this praise and appreciation from one I lovedvanishedin an instant. We stepped apartand gazed upon each other with pallid faces. Inthe same moment the terrible truth had flashed upon us both. This story wasas good as "His Wife's Deceased Sister"!

    We stood silent. The exceptional lot of Barbel'ssuper-pointed pins seemed to pierce our very souls. A dreadful vision rosebefore me of an impending fall and crashin which our domestic happiness shouldvanishand our prospects for our boy be wreckedjust as we had began to buildthem up.

    My wife approached meand took my hand in herswhich wasas cold as ice. "Be strong and firm" she said. "A great dangerthreatens usbut you must brace yourself against it. Be strong and firm."





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    I pressed her handand we said no more that night.

    The next day I took the manuscript I had just writtenandcarefully infolded it in stout wrapping-paper. Then I went to a neighboringgrocery store and bought a smallstrongtin boxoriginally intended forbiscuitwith a cover that fitted tightly. In this I placed my manuscriptandthen I took the box to a tinsmith and had the top fastened on with hard solder.When I went home I ascended into the garret and brought down to my study aship's cash-boxwhich had once belonged to one of my family who was asea-captain. This box was very heavyand firmly bound with ironand wassecured by two massive locks. Calling my wifeI told her of the contents of thetin casewhich I then placed in the boxand having shut down the heavy lidIdoubly locked it.

    "This key" said Iputting it in my pocket"I shall throw into the river when I go out this afternoon."

    My wife watched me eagerlywith a pallid and firm-setcountenancebut upon which I could see the faint glimmer of returning happiness.

    "Wouldn't it be well" she said"to secureit still further by sealing-wax and pieces of tape?"

    "No" said I. "I do not believe that anyone will attempt to tamper with our prosperity. And nowmy dear" Icontinued in an impressive voice"no one but youandin the course oftimeour sonshall know that this manuscript exists. When I am deadthose whosurvive me mayif they see fitcause this box to be split open and the storypublished. The reputation it may give my name cannot harm me then."