English Literature

Tales of Men and Ghosts by Edith Wharton

Tales of Men and Ghosts by Edith Wharton

THE BOLTED DOOR

I

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.

Mrs. Ashgrove?

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.

“Granice!”

“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.”

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