His Wife's Deceased Sister
It is now five years since an event occurred which so colored my
life, or rather so changed some of its original colors, that I have
thought it well to write an account of it, deeming that its lessons
may be of advantage to persons whose situations in life are similar
to my own.
When I was quite a young man I adopted literature as a profession;
and having passed through the necessary preparatory grades, I
myself, after a good many years of hard and often unremunerative
work, in possession of what might be called a fair literary
practice. My articles, grave, gay, practical, or fanciful, had come
to be considered with a favor by the editors of the various
periodicals for which I wrote, on which I found in time I could rely
with a very comfortable certainty. My productions created no
enthusiasm in the reading public; they gave me no great reputation
or very valuable pecuniary return; but they were always accepted,
and my receipts from them, at the time to which I have referred,
were as regular and reliable as a salary, and quite sufficient to
give me more than a comfortable support.
It was at this time I married. I had been engaged for more than a
year, but had not been willing to assume the support of a wife until
I felt that my pecuniary position was so assured that I could do so
with full satisfaction to my own conscience. There was now no doubt
in regard to this position, either in my mind or in that of my wife.
I worked with great steadiness and regularity; I knew exactly where
to place the productions of my pen, and could calculate, with a fair
degree of accuracy, the sums I should receive for them. We were by
no means rich; but we had enough, and were thoroughly satisfied and
Those of my readers who are married will have no difficulty in
remembering the peculiar ecstasy of the first weeks of their wedded
life. It is then that the flowers of this world bloom brightest;
that its sun is the most genial; that its clouds are the scarcest;
that its fruit is the most delicious; that the air is the most
balmy; that its cigars are of the highest flavor; that the warmth
and radiance of early matrimonial felicity so rarefies the
intellectual atmosphere that the soul mounts higher, and enjoys a
wider prospect, than ever before.
These experiences were mine. The plain claret of my mind was changed
to sparkling champagne, and at the very height of its effervescence
I wrote a story. The happy thought that then struck me for a tale
was of a very peculiar character; and it interested me so much that
I went to work at it with great delight and enthusiasm, and finished
it in a comparatively short time. The title of the story was "His
Wife's Deceased Sister"; and when I read it to Hypatia she was
delighted with it, and at times was so affected by its pathos that
her uncontrollable emotion caused a 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 eyes, she turned to me and
said, "This story will make your fortune. There has been nothing so
pathetic since Lamartine's 'History of a Servant-girl.'"
As soon as possible the next day I sent my story to the editor of
the periodical for which I wrote most frequently, and in which my
best productions generally appeared. In a few days I had a letter
from the editor, in which he praised my story as he had never before
praised anything from my pen. It had interested and charmed, he
said, not only himself, but all his associates in the office. Even
old Gibson, who never cared to read anything until it was in proof,
and who never praised anything which had not a joke in it, was
induced by the example of the others to read this manuscript, and
shed, as he asserted, the first tears that had come from his eyes
since his final paternal castigation some forty years before. The
story would appear, the editor assured me, as soon as he could
possibly find room for it.
If anything could make our skies more genial, our flowers brighter,
and the flavor of our fruit and cigars more delicious, it was a
letter like this. And when, in a very short time, the story was
published, we found that the reading public was inclined to receive
it with as much sympathetic interest and favor as had been shown to
it by the editors. My personal friends soon began to express
enthusiastic opinions upon it. It was highly praised in many of the
leading newspapers; and, altogether, it was a great literary
success. I am not inclined to be vain of my writings, and, in
general, my wife tells me, think too little of them; but I did feel
a good deal of pride and satisfaction in the success of "His Wife's
Deceased Sister." If it did not make my fortune, as my wife asserted
that it would, it certainly would help me very much in my literary
In less than a month from the writing of this story, something very
unusual and unexpected happened to me. A manuscript was returned by
the editor of the periodical in which "His Wife's Deceased Sister"
had appeared. "It is a good story," he wrote, "but not equal to what
you have just done. You have made a great hit; and it would not do
to interfere with the reputation you have gained by publishing
anything inferior to 'His Wife's Deceased Sister,' which has had
such a deserved success."
I was so unaccustomed to having my work thrown back on my hands that
I think I must have turned a little pale when I read the letter. I
said nothing of the matter to my wife, for it would be foolish to
drop such grains of sand as this into the smoothly oiled machinery
of our domestic felicity; but I immediately sent the story to
another editor. I am not able to express the astonishment I felt
when, in the course of a week, it was sent back to me. The tone of
the note accompanying it indicated a somewhat injured feeling on the
part of the editor. "I am reluctant," he said, "to decline a
manuscript from you; but you know very well that if you sent me
anything like 'His Wife's Deceased Sister' it would be most promptly
I now felt obliged to speak of the affair to my wife, who was quite
as much surprised, though, perhaps, not quite as much shocked, as I
"Let us read the story again," she said, "and see what is the matter
with it." When we had finished its perusal, Hypatia remarked, "It is
quite as good as many of the stories you have had printed, and I
think it very interesting; although, of course, it is not equal to
'His Wife's Deceased Sister.'"
"Of course not," said I; "that was an inspiration that I cannot
expect every day. But there must be something wrong about this last
story which we do not perceive. Perhaps my recent success may have
made me a little careless in writing it."
"I don't believe that," said Hypatia.
"At any rate," I continued, "I will lay it aside, and will go to
work on a new one."
In due course of time I had another manuscript finished, and I sent
it to my favorite periodical. It was retained some weeks, and then
came back to me. "It will never do," the editor wrote, quite warmly,
"for you to go backward. The demand for the number containing 'His
Wife's Deceased Sister' still continues, and we do not intend to let
you disappoint that great body of readers who would be so eager to
see another number containing one of your stories."
I sent this manuscript to four other periodicals, and from each of
them was it returned with remarks to the effect that, although it
was not a bad story in itself, it 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 a story to be
published in a special number which he would issue for the holidays.
I wrote him one of the character and length he asked for, and sent
it to him. By return mail it came back to me. "I had hoped," the
editor wrote, "when I asked for a story from your pen, to receive
something like 'His Wife's Deceased Sister,' and I must own that I
am very much disappointed."
I was so filled with anger when I read this note that I openly
objurgated "His Wife's Deceased Sister." "You must excuse me," I
said to my astonished wife, "for expressing myself thus in your
presence; but that confounded story will be the ruin of me yet.
Until it is forgotten nobody will ever take anything I write."
"And you cannot expect it ever to be forgotten," said Hypatia, with
tears in her eyes.
It is needless for me to detail my literary efforts in the course of
the next few months. The ideas of the editors with whom my principal
business had been done, in regard to my literary ability, had been
so raised by my unfortunate story of "His Wife's Deceased Sister"
that I found it was of no use to send them anything of lesser merit.
And as to the other journals which I tried, they evidently
considered it an insult for me to send them matter inferior to that
by which my reputation had lately risen. The fact was that my
successful story had ruined me. My income was at end, and want
actually stared me in the face; and I must admit that I did not like
the expression of its countenance. It was of no use for me to try to
write another story like "His Wife's Deceased Sister." I could not
get married every time I began a new manuscript, and it was the
exaltation of mind caused by my wedded felicity which produced that
"It's perfectly dreadful!" said my wife. "If I had had a sister, and
she had died, I would have thought it was my fault."
"It could not be your fault," I answered, "and I do not think it was
mine. I had no intention of deceiving anybody into the belief that I
could do that sort of thing every time, and it ought not to be
expected of me. Suppose Raphael's patrons had tried to keep him
screwed up to the pitch of the Sistine Madonna, and had refused to
buy anything which was not as good as that. In that case I think he
would have occupied a much earlier and narrower grave than that on
which Mr. Morris Moore hangs his funeral decorations."
"But, my dear," said Hypatia, who was posted on such subjects, "the
Sistine Madonna was one of his latest paintings."
"Very true," said I; "but if he had married, as I did, he would have
painted it earlier."
I was walking homeward one afternoon about this time, when I met
Barbel--a man I had known well in my early literary career. He was
now about fifty years of age, but looked older. His hair and beard
were quite gray; and his clothes, which were of the same general
hue, gave me the idea that they, like his hair, had originally been
black. Age is very hard on a man's external appointments. Barbel had
an air of having been to let for a long time, and quite out of
repair. But there was a kindly gleam in his eye, and he welcomed me
"Why, what is the matter, old fellow?" said he. "I never saw you
look so woebegone."
I had no reason to conceal anything from Barbel. In my younger days
he had been of great use to me, and he had a right to know the state
of my affairs. I laid the whole case plainly before him.
"Look here," he said, when 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 very dirty and
well-worn house which stood in a narrow and lumpy street, into which
few vehicles ever penetrated, except the ash and garbage carts, and
the rickety wagons of the venders of stale vegetables.
"This is not exactly a fashionable promenade," said Barbel, as we
approached the house; "but in some respects it reminds me of the
streets in Italian towns, where the palaces lean over toward each
other in such a friendly way."
Barbel's room was, to my mind, rather more doleful than the street.
It was dark, it was dusty, and cobwebs hung from every corner. The
few chairs upon the floor and the books upon a greasy table seemed
to be afflicted with some dorsal epidemic, for 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
"There is nothing better," said Barbel, noticing my glance toward
this novel counterpane, "for a bed-covering than newspapers: they
keep you as warm as a blanket, and are much lighter. I used to use
_Tribunes_, but they rattled too much."
The only part of the room which was well lighted was at one end near
the solitary window. Here, upon a table with a spliced leg, stood a
"At the other end of the room," said Barbel, "is my cook-stove,
which you can't see unless I light the candle in the bottle which
stands by it; but if you don't care particularly to examine it, I
won't go to the expense of lighting up. You might pick up a good
many odd pieces of bric-a-brac around here, if you chose to strike a
match and investigate; but I would not advise you to do so. It would
pay better to throw the things out of the window than to carry them
downstairs. The particular piece of indoor decoration to which I
wish to call your attention is this." And he led me to a little
wooden frame which hung against the wall near the window. Behind a
dusty piece of glass it held what appeared to be a leaf from a small
magazine or journal. "There," said he, "you see a page from the
_Grasshopper_, a humorous paper which flourished in this city some
half-dozen years ago. I used to write regularly for that paper, as
you may remember."
"Oh yes, indeed!" I exclaimed. "And I shall never forget your
'Conundrum of the Anvil' which appeared in it. How often have I
laughed at that most wonderful conceit, and how often have I put it
to my friends!"
Barbel gazed at me silently for a moment, and then he pointed to the
frame. "That printed page," he said, solemnly, "contains the
'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 it I cannot tell. It
is one of those things which occur to a man but once in a lifetime.
After the wild shout of delight with which the public greeted that
conundrum, my subsequent efforts met with hoots of derision. The
_Grasshopper_ turned its hind legs upon me. I sank from bad to
worse--much worse--until at last I found myself reduced to my
present occupation, which is that of grinding points to pins. By
this I procure my bread, coffee, and tobacco, and sometimes potatoes
and meat. One day while I was hard at work an organ-grinder came
into the street below. He played the serenade from "Trovatore"; and
the familiar notes brought back visions of old days and old
delights, when the successful writer wore good clothes and sat at
operas, when he looked into sweet eyes and talked of Italian airs,
when his future appeared all a succession of bright scenery and
joyous acts, without any provision for a drop-curtain. And as my ear
listened, and my mind wandered in this happy retrospect, my every
faculty seemed exalted, and, without any thought upon the matter, I
ground points upon my pins so fine, so regular and smooth, that they
would have pierced with ease the leather of a boot, or slipped
among, without abrasion, the finest threads of rare old lace. When
the organ stopped, and I fell back into my real world of cobwebs and
mustiness, I gazed upon the pins I had just ground, and, without a
moment's hesitation, I threw them into the street, and reported the
lot as spoiled. This cost me a little money, but it saved me my
After a few moments of silence, Barbel resumed:
"I have no more to say to you, my young friend. All I want you to do
is to look upon that framed conundrum, then upon this grindstone,
and then to go home and reflect. As for me, I have a gross of pins
to grind before the sun goes down."
I cannot say that my depression of mind was at all relieved by what
I had seen and heard. I had lost sight of Barbel for some years, and
I had supposed him still floating on the sun-sparkling stream of
prosperity where I had last seen him. It was a great shock to me to
find him in such a condition of poverty and squalor, and to see a
man who had originated the "Conundrum of the Anvil" reduced to the
soul-depressing occupation of grinding pin-points. As I walked and
thought, the dreadful picture of a totally eclipsed future 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 friend Barbel.
She listened with a sad and eager interest.
"I am afraid," she said, "if our fortunes do not quickly mend, that
we shall have to buy two little grindstones. You know I could help
you at that sort of thing."
For a long time we sat together and talked, and devised many plans
for the future. I did not think it necessary yet for me to look out
for a pin-contract; but I must find some way of making money, or we
should starve to death. Of course the first thing that suggested
itself was the possibility of finding some other business; but,
apart from the difficulty of immediately obtaining remunerative work
in occupations to which I had not been trained, I felt a great and
natural reluctance to give up a profession for which I had carefully
prepared myself, and which I had adopted as my life-work. It would
be very hard for me to lay down my pen forever, and to close the top
of my inkstand upon all the bright and happy fancies which I had
seen mirrored in its tranquil pool. We talked and pondered the rest
of that day and a good deal of the night, but we came to no
conclusion as to what it would be best for us to do.
The next day I determined to go and call upon the editor of the
journal for which, in happier days, before the blight of "His Wife's
Deceased Sister" rested upon me, I used most frequently to write,
and, having frankly explained my condition to him, to ask his
advice. The editor was a good man, and had always been my friend. He
listened with great attention to what I told him, and evidently
sympathized with me in my trouble.
"As we have written to you," he said, "the only reason why we did
not accept the manuscripts you sent us was that they would have
disappointed the high hopes that the public had formed in regard to
you. We have had letter after letter asking when we were going to
publish another story like 'His Wife's Deceased Sister.' We felt,
and we still feel, that it would be wrong to allow you to destroy
the fair fabric which yourself has raised. But," he added, with a
kind smile, "I see very plainly that your well-deserved reputation
will be of little advantage to you if you should starve at the
moment that its genial beams are, so to speak, lighting you up."
"Its beams are not genial," I answered. "They have scorched and
"How would you like," said the editor, after a short reflection, "to
allow us to publish the stories you have recently written under some
other name than your own? That would satisfy us and the public,
would put money in your pocket, and would not interfere with your
Joyfully I seized that noble fellow by the hand, and instantly
accepted his proposition. "Of course," said I, "a reputation is a
very good thing; but no reputation can take the place of food,
clothes, and a house to live in; and I gladly agree to sink my
over-illumined name into oblivion, and 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's Deceased Sister.'"
All the manuscripts I had on hand I now sent to my good friend the
editor, and in due and proper order they appeared in his journal
under the name of John Darmstadt, which I had selected as a
substitute for my own, permanently disabled. I made a similar
arrangement with other editors, and John Darmstadt received the
credit of everything that proceeded from my pen. Our circumstances
now became very comfortable, and occasionally we even allowed
ourselves to indulge in little dreams of prosperity.
Time passed on very pleasantly; one year, another, and then a little
son was born to us. It is often difficult, I believe, for thoughtful
persons to decide whether the beginning of their conjugal career, or
the earliest weeks in the life of their first-born, be the happiest
and proudest period of their existence. For myself I can only say
that the same exaltation of mind, the same rarefication of idea and
invention, which succeeded upon my wedding-day came upon me now. As
then, my ecstatic emotions crystallized themselves into a motive for
a story, and without delay I set myself to work upon it. My boy was
about six weeks old when the manuscript was finished; and one
evening, as we sat before a comfortable fire in our sitting-room,
with the curtains drawn, and the soft lamp lighted, and the baby
sleeping soundly in the adjoining chamber, I read the story to my
When I had finished, my wife arose and threw herself into my arms.
"I was never so proud of you," she said, her glad eyes sparkling,
"as I am at this moment. That is a wonderful story! It is--indeed I
am sure it is--just as good as 'His Wife's Deceased Sister.'"
As she spoke these words a sudden and chilling sensation crept over
us both. All her warmth and fervor, and the proud and happy glow
engendered within me by this praise and appreciation from one I
loved, vanished in an instant. We stepped apart, and gazed upon each
other with pallid faces. In the same moment the terrible truth had
flashed upon us both.
This story _was_ as good as "His Wife's Deceased Sister"!
We stood silent. The exceptional lot of Barbel's superpointed pins
seemed to pierce our very souls. A dreadful vision rose before me of
an impending fall and crash, in which our domestic happiness should
vanish, and our prospects for our boy be wrecked, just as we had
begun to build them up.
My wife approached me and took my hand in hers, which was as cold as
ice. "Be strong and firm," she said. "A great danger threatens us,
but you must brace yourself against it. Be strong and firm."
I pressed her hand, and we said no more that night.
The next day I took the manuscript I had just written, and carefully
infolded it in stout wrapping-paper. Then I went to a neighboring
grocery-store and bought a small, strong tin box, originally
intended for biscuit, with a cover that fitted tightly. In this I
placed my manuscript; and then 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 a ship's cash-box,
which had once belonged to one of my family who was a sea-captain.
This box was very heavy, and firmly bound with iron, and was secured
by two massive locks. Calling my wife, I told her of the contents of
the tin case, which I then placed in the box, and, having shut down
the heavy lid, I doubly locked it.
"This key," said I, putting it in my pocket, "I shall throw into the
river when I go out this afternoon."
My wife watched me eagerly, with a pallid and firm, set countenance,
but upon which I could see the faint glimmer of returning happiness.
"Wouldn't it be well," she said, "to secure it still further by
sealing-wax and pieces of tape?"
"No," said I. "I do not believe that any one will attempt to tamper
with our prosperity. And now, my dear," I continued, in an
impressive voice, "no one but you, and, in the course of time, our
son, shall know that this manuscript exists. When I am dead, those
who survive me may, if they see fit, cause this box to be split open
and the story published. The reputation it may give my name cannot
harm me then."