An Altered Circumstance


August 22, 1917.

My Dear Master:—

The rejection of a manuscript from your hand is an event of greater literary importance than the publication of no matter what by any other American author. To-day, then, I make history.

You are aware that no severer critic than myself exists, that I take cruel pleasure in nailing a Noyes to my barn door, or in flagellating the fatuities of a Frost; let me further assure you that Cato himself was not less accessible to influence, or Brutus to the claims of friendship than your admirer and your friend who addresses these words to you.

Put therefore from your mind, I pray you, any suggestion that I wished to flatter you in my exordium. In all matters of art I yield no precedence to Rhadamanthus.

To prove it, let me say that I hold your style in abhorrence and your judgement in contempt, whenever you set yourself to praise. You have made Charles Hanson Towne ridiculous by hailing him a “Prince of Love” and preferring his barley-water to the ripe wine of Petrarch; your opinions have lost value in the very measure in which they have unveiled the radiant virginity of your nature. I can but bow my head as I think that nigh half a century of life on such a planet as ours has not abated your innocence. Integer vitae scelerisque purus Non eget Mauri jaculis, neque arcu; Nec venenatis gravida sagittis, Fusce, pharetra. I, bearing such weapons and having used them, may now lay them aside, and return to my rejection of your manuscript.

You know in part what writings I have already published, and you will not suppose that I fear the noxiousness of a Sumner; rather I might incline to err by seeking an opportunity to stamp out such cockroaches from the kitchen, instead of paying strict attention to the preparation of the banquet.

Nor is my action based upon any failure to appreciate your mastercraft. In such stories as “The Toe,” “The Moustache,” “Miss Dix” and many another you have shown yourself the Elisha on whom the mantle of Edgar Allan Poe has fallen. Ethereal as he was, you have spread wings in an Empyrean beyond his furthest flight.

In compensation, you have no such grip of earth as he had when he swooped down upon it.

It is but rarely that you strike home to humanity. That tale in which the husband arises from his coffin and in which a wife is won by flagellation are your strongest, and Poe has twenty stories to surpass them in that quality. You remember the Albatross of Baudelaire? “Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.” That is your case.

I know of no writer who uses the English language as you do. At your touch words take wings and fly. There is no story in your story; there is not even atmosphere. There is a faint and elusive impact on one’s sensibility which is nowise linked with memory or even with imagination. You produce somewhat of the effect of a presentiment. It is impossible to publish a presentiment!

Your style defies the scalpel; you write as simply as de Maupassant, and in as mundane terms; but your characters have a quality similar to that which I have observed in the Hyperion of Keats, in Homer, in Ossian, and in the Prophetic Books of Blake. In each person of the drama we find what I must call “giganticism.” We are not told, as by the crude method of Dante, that Thel is so many cubits high; his story is simple as a villager’s; yet we are somehow aware that he is colossal, a being huge as heaven itself. There is no room in the universe for any figures but those actively present in the drama.

Your characters have not these Titan thews, this starry stature. You write of commonplace people such as we meet every day. But you have the gift of endowing them with most mysterious importance. The subtlety of your satire, the delicacy of your humor, are but the gossamer at whose center lurks the spider of your art most strange, remote and fascinating, a soul bizarre and sinister. It is a doom intangible as invisible, and by all paths as ineluctable as death. The expressed and comprehensible horror of Poe or of Hans Heinz Ewers holds no such terror. . . .

I perceive that I must borrow the lady’s privilege, and publish the story. . . . at least, another one!

With homage and devotion, my dear master, I offer the assurance of my impregnable esteem.


Nothing in this miserable room of mine that I could pawn for bread! Twice within the week had my landlady reminded me that the trivial sum I owed for rent was overdue.

I lifted a worn and tattered volume on the subject of anatomy from the crazy table on which my little medical library reposed. A despairing inspection of its shabby state confirmed me in my fear. The maddest and most romantic Jew in Elizabethan drama would never have risked his farthing upon my entire treasure. Within the week I hoped to pass the examination that was to win me the precious privilege of practicing as a physician in New York. It seemed now that I must die of hunger in the streets meanwhile.

As I placed my poor book among its poorer companions and fell into a mood of pity for the fate that made them mine, a knocking knuckle sounded at the door. I ignored it altogether. I could not pay the rent. The hour of my doom had struck. I would yield it no welcome.

“Oh! You are in.”

My landlady had not awaited my summons. She stood before me in her tall severity, a black-browed symbol of the last of all things. I smiled at her. Odd as it seemed to me then, I could smile into that grave face of hers.

“I have no money.”

I said this with a sigh, although I had no longing for her pity. I thought I heard a sigh upon her own lips as she sank upon that rickety chair beside the table.

“But I have not come for the rent.”

I fixed my gaze intently upon the head of dark hair that met my eye as her head drooped. She looked up at me suddenly.

“I have had to take refuge here,” she explained, “from that man.”

“Your husband?”

She bowed her head and for an interval there was silence. I had never taken too seriously the complaints this landlady perpetually made against him to whom she loved to refer as her brute of a husband. My landlord did not appear to me in the least brutal. He was, I understood, a sort of truckman, very irregularly employed for the time being in consequence of the congested traffic conditions in the city of New York.

“What has he done to you now?”

My voice had in it a ring of much impatience. The grievances of this woman had grown preposterous to me. That she saw at once. The dark eyes flashed proudly in her head. I had affronted this creature. I would be reminded of the rent.

Before the words escaped her lips the door was flung wide open. My landlord stood upon the threshold.

“Will you give me that money?”

I thought at first this question must be meant for me. The landlord, however, was gazing steadily at his wife. He did not heed my presence in the least. The woman stood up to confront him and they eyed one another defiantly.

“That money!” She stepped back a pace. “It’s mine.” “I say it’s mine!”

“You shan’t have it!”

He seized her by the wrist, and I saw him give her arm a wrench. Her struggles to be free brought the masses of her hair in confusion about her shoulders. She strove to bite him. His persistent twisting of the arm he held drew from her at last a cry of anguish. A crumpled green banknote fell from her hand to the floor. He fled with it from the room.

“Brute!” The door had slammed behind her husband, but she screamed so loudly that he must have heard her. “I hate you!”

When she sank once more upon the rickety chair and made a cushion for her head with an arm, I emerged from the spell wrought by this scene of violence. My movement must have been a very slight one, yet her ear detected it. I found her suddenly looking up at me through the masses of that hair.


She did not hiss the word. She did not hurl it at me as she might have hurled a curse. She smiled. That smile was to me a whip of which I felt the sting on my cheek.

“But,” I protested feebly and with a most humiliating sense of the feebleness with which I protested, “what would you have had me do?”

“Kill him!”

I marveled at the music in her voice. It had a cruel emphasis and yet a power that subdued my spirit. She understood me at that moment far better than I understood myself.

“Kill him!” She stood up at this repetition of her behest, speaking in that slow and thrilling tone. “Be a man!” Never until then did it occur to me that she was beautiful. I observed the liquid quality of her eyes, and strove to avert mine from them. I could not. Her face was very white and she pushed those coils of hair away from it with gestures of a miraculous seduction.

“Here!” Her voice revealed how thoroughly she realized the conquest she had made of me. “Use this.”

It was a carving knife. She thrust it into my hand before I could reply to her. The suasion with which she urged me to the door was not gentle.

“There is no one in the house but ourselves.”

She addressed me in a whisper as I hesitated on the edge of the stairs outside. I glanced at the long, keen knife in my hand. I turned once more to gaze into the eyes of the woman. Then I stole down, step by step, the woman peering over the railings all the time.

Not until I reached the kitchen in the basement did I come upon the man. By this time I had thrust the knife into my belt and there it was hidden underneath the coat I wore. My landlord was making a frugal meal of bread and cheese at a little deal table in the corner beside a wash tub.

“Aha!” He seemed disconcerted at beholding me. “Did you pay the rent?”

“I will pay your wife in full,” I assured him as I drew near, “this very night.”

“Aha!” This must have been his favorite oath. “Has my wife sent you here to murder me? Every time we get a tenant he comes to me with that intention. Where’s the carving knife?”

These revelations left me motionless and staring. He took advantage of my great surprise to hurl himself upon me. I did not dodge in time, but as he seized my arm I got a good grasp upon his shoulder. Our turnings and circlings about the kitchen so disarranged my clothing that he could see the knife at my belt easily. The sight inspired him to make a demand in tones that reached the roof for a surrender of this trophy. I merely seized the empty bottle on the table as the pair of us described fantastic angles all about it. A purpose to hit my landlord on the head was in my own mind, and this had been anticipated by himself. He snatched the bottle as I poised it menacingly in the air, and then he brought it down upon my head. I stood dazed. He had that knife out of my belt in a flash.

“Aha!” He cried aloud triumphantly. “Don’t be afraid.”

I had taken refuge in the cupboard, shutting the door upon myself quickly and completely. My landlord made no further effort to pursue me. I could hear him moving about the kitchen. At last I heard the sound of that knife. It seemed to undergo a process of sharpening. I heard it scraping.

“I tell you again I’m not going to hurt you.”

A note of such perfect sincerity informed the voice of my landlord that I ventured to set the cupboard door ajar. He knelt at present in front of the stove. I observed him closely as he moved that knife back and forth. No look of ferocity inflamed that face of his.

“What do you mean to do?”

He replied to my question almost as soon as I had asked it by making a thrust at his breast. I managed to leap upon him in a fashion sufficiently agile to avert a fatality, although I could see that he had cut himself. I clutched the hand that held the knife. He tried to free himself, but I did not let go.

“Let me die, I tell you! I cannot trouble her then.”

Once more the pair of us described fantastic circles. We knocked the table over. We fell into that tub. We broke all the dishes in the place. He called his wife the vilest names. He said that I might have her, but he added that my fate if I took her must be as dreadful as his own. He took a solemn oath to die, die, die!

Words more dreadful still he mouthed above the din we made, and then he fell. It proved an easy task to rob him of that knife, for he had fainted. Loss of blood from that trickling wound of his had made this victory for me. I stripped him of his shirt and improvised a bandage from it for his chest.

“Will he live?”

My landlady stared at us through the broken pane of glass in the kitchen door. She had bound up that hair.

“He is not much hurt,” I told her, “but he has received a shock.”

She trod delicately among the broken dishes and the lumps of coal until she reached that knife. This she lifted from the floor and put into the oven. I followed every movement of hers with my eye intently, as if I looked upon some absorbing scene in a theatre.


She had knelt beside her husband, but he lay as I had left him, breathing easily. She made her way next, with that characteristically delicate step, to the sink. There she filled a bowl with water, taking it to the side of our patient and kneeling at his head. She put her lips to his forehead.

“Philip, my darling!” How perfect the note of love in her voice! “Speak! Tell me you are all right.”

“And you,” I said, bending over her to whisper the words, “and you put that knife into my hand and sent me here to kill him. What has changed your mind?”

“Fool!” she cried, pillowing her husband’s head upon her bosom. “Fool! He needs me now!”

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