By Albert J. Manachino
"Dear me," Russ thought, "I have spent my last thirty cents."
The thirty cents was for aspirins: he was about to commit suicide. He had thought it over carefully.
"How can I kill myself?" The problem was a vexing one. He did not have the courage to step in front of a speeding automobile. No edged or pointed instruments, he was too tidy.
A rope then? Russ did not have a rope. He had nothing. Would Mrs. Schwartz lend him a piece? Probably not; he did not know how to tie knots anyhow.
Russ was becoming forgetful ... Mrs. Schwartz had evicted him for non-payment of rent.
A leap from the roof of a building? The method was bound to attract attention. He flinched from the stares of the crowd.
"This will be the last time," Russ thought, "that I will be the center of attention."
He sipped his now tepid coffee. All the more lurid approaches to suicide having been rejected, he now settled on an aspirin overdose.
The opposite side of the booth was occupied by a gentleman of benevolent appearance. Russ was certain that he had not been hustled on his way because the counterman did not wish to create a disturbance in front of him.
Murderers were accorded a final meal of their own choosing. Perhaps he could go out and kill someone? He rejected the idea. Russ sighed; at one time life had held so much promise for him.
"The most talented harpist it has been my good fortune to instruct," one of his instructors had stated unequivocally.
His love for the harp amounted to an obsession. He received acclaim from critics and standing ovations from audiences. His name became a legend in music.
Being constitutionally frail, one cannot practice eighteen hours daily indefinitely. Russ suffered a nervous collapse. When the doctors released him, the harmonious relationship between his fingers and the strings had fled. His decline was precipitous.
First, Russ sold such of his belongings as did not directly relate to music. He retrenched by taking lodgings of the cheapest. Arithmetic was against him. Though he slowed the drain on his resources, he couldn't stop it. With nothing coming in, his reserves sank lower and lower till one morning Mrs. Schwartz laid down an ultimatum.
"Pay up or get out!"
Russ sold his harp.
Successively, he was a failure as a laborer, a clerk and as a delivery boy. Again the ultimatum. This time there was nothing to sell. Russ got out.
His coffee reached the bottom of the cup. Soon he would be forced to exchange the warmth of the diner for the street.
"And life had begun with such brilliant prospects," he thought bitterly. "I would sell my soul for ten years of success."
"Just ten years?" The old man seemed interested. "Surely you can do better than that."
Russ froze; the blood drained from his face.
The old gentleman went on. "I'll give you fifteen years instead." There was a twinkle in his eyes.
"You you mean ?"
"Of course. In return for your soul, you will have fifteen years of the success that has eluded you." His eyes continued to exude benevolence.
Russ experienced a terrible fear of the unholy fires they masked.
He thought rapidly. Outside the diner, what awaited him? Hunger, Rejection, The cold of winter. He reached a decision.
"I agree." Russ searched through his threadbare pockets for a pen, then he remembered that such bargains were signed in blood.
The stranger held up a protesting hand. "A contract isn't necessary. Your word is sufficient. You will see me again fifteen years from now -- exactly at this hour." The diner clock registered ten-thirty.
Back in the street, the cold night wind seeped through his inadequate clothing and dispelled the dreamlike qualities of the past hour. The elderly gentleman had vanished the instant Russ took his eyes off him.
He leaned against a large canvas-covered object sitting on a dolly of the kind used to move refrigerators.
"I'd better find shelter," he thought. Removing his hand from the object, he started to walk away.
Russ turned. An irate policeman beckoned him back. "You got a crust," he growled. "Who the hell do you think you are abandoning that crate in the middle of the sidewalk?"
Russ panicked. The thought of denying ownership died unuttered. Seizing the dolly by the handle, he fled.
It was not as heavy or as hard to pull as its size implied. Whenever Russ worked up enough courage to abandon it, he would be met by suspicious stares from complete strangers. Whatever it was became as well established around his neck as the fabled albatross.
"Yoo hoo! Mr. Lamb!" His ex-landlady's voice penetrated his bemusement. Unthinkingly, he had wandered back to his old neighborhood. "Some nice old gentleman stopped by and paid your back rent and six weeks in advance too. He said to look for you that you would be passing this way." Mrs. Schwartz noticed the burden. "Jake will take it to your room."
Jake came in response to her yell. He rubbed his hands and beamed, "Ja, ach! It is nossing."
He lifted it without difficulty. During all this, Russ suffered vocal paralysis. Dumfounded, he stood helpless, a ragged scarecrow incapable of speech or motion.
"Come in," Mrs. Schwartz urged. "Come look at your nice new room. On the ground floor yet."
Russ was shooed into his new quarters -- clearly the best the house had to offer.
"I take off this canvas, Ja?" Jake tugged at the cords and the canvas fell away revealing a harp case of the most exquisite beauty.
The case opened at a touch. Russ never dared to dream of possessing such an instrument. He stumbled backward into a chair, his mind unable to cope with the rapidity of events. Mrs. Schwartz bustled in with a large bowl of hot beef and vegetable soup. In his famished condition, the aroma almost overwhelmed him. She placed the bowl in his hands.
The transformation in her character and that of the brutish Jake was so pronounced as to be remarkable. Russ had always thought of them as two aging sharks preying on such weak and defenseless fish as fortune might drive their way.
The soup brought his strength back and a fresh sense of determination. Russ went to the harp and gazed lovingly at it. He gathered it into his arms an ardent lover embracing his sweetheart.
In a state of enchantment, he drew his fingers across the strings and brought forth notes of such beauty as he had never imagined possible. The harp belonged in a heavenly choir. In that moment, the magic returned to his fingers. Russ played. The room ceased to exist, he was in heaven. There was nothing but the harp and the beautiful music. Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz listened enraptured. When he stopped, it was not from fatigue but from a weakness that was inexplicable.
Russ clung to the pillar of the harp. An ugly noise obtruded. The vestibule buzzer was pealing frantically. Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz exchanged glances of annoyance. Tears had left their mark on Jake's face. "Chust like it vas in church ven I vas a little boy in Stuttgart."
A visibly excited gentleman had escaped his landlady and burst into the room. "The harpist!" he shouted, "Where is he?"
Russ made the acknowledgement. The stranger produced a card. "I am Heinrich Von Baeger, Director of the Municipal Opera House. Present this card to my receptionish tomorrow without fail."
The demon certainly did not believe in wasting time, Russ thought.
From the Municipal Opera House, he went on to triumph after triumph. He became the highest paid harpist in the world. All the greatest musical awards descended upon him. The fame and fortune that had eluded Russ earlier was now taken for granted.
He did not consider evading his fate. Russ was convinced of the futility of such attempts. The devil always collected his due.
Russ took time from tours to instruct young and gifted students. They did not have to be wealthy. It was remarkable that love found an opportunity to enter into his life at this late date.
Her eyes were so large they seemed to encompass most of her face. They always mirrored a deep adoration for him. She was not pretty. Mary-Ann was so shy that at times she seemed not to exist except for Russ.
It was this quality, since he was a retiring person himself, that initially drew her to him. She brought with her a serious devotion to music that impressed him deeply. Mary-Ann was the most dedicated pupil he had ever instructed and he found himself spending more and more of his time in her company. Russ found himself eagerly anticipating her arrival at the studio. She was always punctual.
Under his tutelage she progressed rapidly. "One of these days," he told her, "you will have to carry on where I've left off. You are almost ready for your professional debut."
His voice frightened her. "What do you mean, Russ? What is the matter? Are you ill?"
He revealed the bargain. Her eyes became even larger. She was frantic. "Russ! You can't go through with it. How much time is left?"
"Less than a week."
As little as that? We must see a priest, he will save you."
"No man can save me, dearest. The devil has carried out his side of the bargain. I must carry out mine."
"Russ! Russ if there is any possibility of salvation, you must take it. You can't go through with this. Think of your soul."
"My soul would be dishonored if I did not respect my word."
She begged. She reasoned. Russ was immovable. "Then, I want to be with you when he comes. Perhaps I can offer myself instead."
This time it was she who would not listen. A deep love had come into his life too late for him to avail himself of it.
The week passed all too quickly, as must any final week of a person's life. They waited for the appearance of the "benign gentleman." Russ was certain he would be there punctually at ten-thirty. The clock registered twenty-nine minutes past ten.
She sat beside Russ, clasping his hands as if to keep him from being taken. The old gentleman was not one minute late. He bowed to Mary-Ann.
"You have a great future. Mr. Lamb chose wisely when he selected you to carry on his work."
"Will you take me instead?" she pleaded.
There was sadness in the benevolent smile. He shook his head.
"No, my dear. The agreement was between Mr. Lamb and myself."
"But it's so unjust to condemn him to burn forever. You had to resort to the basest trickery to obtain his soul. You manipulated his misfortunes till the only alternatives he had were starvation or suicide."
"No, you are wrong. It was the devotion to his art that precipitated the events leading to the alternatives. There was no trickery or manipulation. I did permit a misimpression that was never rectified as I did not want to subject Mr. Lamb to the temptation of terminating our bargain prematurely." He continued as they stared at him. "Satan is not the only purchaser of souls. We do it occasionally as a form of insurance. If Mr. Lamb had committed suicide in his time of despair, we would not have been able to admit him into our domain. We, also, are guided by hard fast rules. A person who throws away the gift of life is automatically excluded from heaven." The benign old gentleman handed her a card which read simply, "Paul Joseph Burke, Undersaint."
"My immediate superior," he explained, "has assumed responsibility for the heavenly choir and frankly, we have the need of an outstanding harpist. In due time, we hope to avail ourselves of your services also. He turned to Russ. "Shall we go?"
Russ nodded. He kissed Mary-Ann. "Good bye my love."
"Au revoir, my dear."
This page is part of The Borderland Archive