His Wife's Deceased Sister
by Frank Stockton
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 found 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 rarefy 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.
f 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,
I 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 it would, it certainly would
help me very much in my literary career.
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
"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 accepted."
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 had
"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
it was 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 desired, 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 an 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 story.
"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 the one 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 cordially.
"Why, what is the matter, old fellow?" said he. "I never saw you look
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 together.
"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 one end near the
solitary window. Here, upon a table with a spliced leg, stood a little
"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 down-stairs.
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
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 on 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 so smooth that they would have pierced with ease the
leather of a boot, or slipped, without abrasion, among 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 livelihood."
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
"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 you yourself have 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 reputation."
Joyfully I seized the 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
"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
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 wife.
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 super-pointed 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 began
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."