In my dream I am alone in a great house with many closed doors. Each door is different: one of smooth, sandy wood, the next rich, dark ebony, this one glossy purple, another painted like a checkerboard. Their handles also vary: a Delft knob, a brass bar, a faceted glass bauble. I wander along the hallway in delight, trying to determine what lies behind each panel from the character of the front. Once I opened an oak door carved in marvelous detail, a scene of fairy folk cavorting at a firelight revel. I stepped inside and instantly was drawn into the dance. But another time, anticipating a sea voyage, I chose a door of aqua blue with a ship’s wheel for its knob. Instead a lioness leaped out and pinned me to the floor. As her bloody breath blasted my face and her eager fangs closed on my throat, I awoke with a strangled scream, heart throbbing ecstatically. They say you may never die in a dream.
Naturally, there are many doors in my own house, imposing walnut panels all the same. My mansion is the largest in town, my bank the only financial establishment. My wife is the prettiest and most accomplished hostess. My children are handsome and obedient. Here is what I see when I open my doors:
“Oh, Mr. Cory, sir! Was the breakfast all right? Can I bring you something more?”
“Everything was fine, Bridget.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Bridget bobs and curtseys, her round cheeks flushed from the heat of the stove, reddish wisps escaping from her bun. The kitchen maid and the stable boy quickly join in the bowing, all three startled by my unannounced presence. Gleaming copper pots dangle from the racks, the cupboards are stocked with pungent wheels of cheese and jellied fruits in glass jars. In the sink the breakfast dishes soak in a froth of suds.
“I’ll be fixing a fine roast for your guests tonight, Mr. Cory,” says Bridget, wiping her hands on her apron. “And a chocolate brandy cake for dessert.”
“We look forward to it, Bridget. Thank you.”
As I depart, the little kitchen maid gasps in relief. “Scared the life out of me, he did, coming in here like that.”
“Huh,” snorts Bridget. “Let that be a lesson to you then. Never shirk at your duty because this be their house and only God knows when the master or mistress might appear and catch you idle. And you,” she cuffs the bare-shinned boy, “you’ve had your tea and muffin. Run along back to the stable.”
“Richard, come in and close the door.” Augustus Wiley rises from the chair beside the fireplace, beckoning impatiently. I feel a stir of resentment. This is my house, not his. Nevertheless, I follow his instruction. Wiley is fifty, a fellow shareholder in Grace Mines, and his buff-colored frock coat fits him like a kid glove on a skeleton. His wealth, as well as our mutual business affairs, makes us natural allies. Indeed, if there is profit to be squeezed from any enterprise, Wiley is the man to wring it out. But he shares his joy with no one, no wife or child, and his eyes are like hard brown olive pits in his sallow face. Sometimes I wish I were free of him, as perhaps he does of me. Though he smiles to conceal it, he scorns me for having inherited, where he rose from clerk to owner through shrewd dealing.
“How are you, Augustus?” I ask.
“Never mind me. It’s that damn socialist, Bolen.” He spits the name as if the barest mention leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
“What has he done?”
“Called for a strike, that’s what. Here, read this.”
He thrusts a paper into my hand, a broadsheet exhorting the miners and their families to unite in protest of unsafe conditions and low pay. All summer there have been rumblings of discontent from the men, and a growing number have been seen leaving the back room of O’Malley’s bar where the county’s budding labor movement holds its meetings. Now the language is blunt—“End your oppression! Who benefits from your toil?”—and my pulse beats faster in contradiction: outrage at Bolen’s audacity coupled with a foolish desire to shout “Hurrah!”
“He must be stopped, Richard.” Augustus brings down his knobby fist, his cold flesh blue veined. “This is a call to anarchy.”
The word returns me to my senses. “But what can be done?”
“We’ll send down word to fire him, bar him from the mine. He’ll lose his support once the men see it’s likely to cost them their jobs.”
“Yes. I suppose that will do it.”
“It better,” mutters Augustus, “or he’ll lose more than his place.”
He departs, and I wonder that he feels no kinship for Bolen, a self-taught man who has risen to head of the miners and a powerful speaker in the workers’ cause. From a distance, I have seen him leading the rallies, a lean, dark figure, his face hard and proud. This is no shirker; surely his determination to advance is something Augustus should understand. But then I remember: Bolen’s dream is the betterment of all men, Wiley’s only the enrichment of himself.
“Papa! Papa! Have you brought us candy? Mamselle says we have been very good and learned our French. Listen to me recite.”
I watch from the doorway as Maud singsongs a poem. Her ringlets bob on the lace collar of her dress. Edward stands beside her, awaiting his turn. My son resembles me closely, tall for seven and fair haired. Both children have the delicate skin and shapely bones ensured by genteel breeding.
“Yes, yes, you shall have sweets,” I say.
“Why, Richard dear. You’re home early.”
Elizabeth rises gracefully from the table where she and three companions sip tea from dainty china cups. The women flutter as we exchange greetings, their skirts and bustles billowing like wind-filled sails. What do they do all day, these females, with their teas and gossip and carriage rides? Why, on a constant diet of sugar and cream, don’t they get fat? I want to pull up their petticoats and force them all right here on the floor, make them kick and shriek in outrage and delight. But tonight when I open the door to Elizabeth’s room she’ll look up from her magazine and sigh, “Must we? It’s so late. Oh, very well, but please be quick about it.”
The Dining Room
The aroma is delicious. Bridget has prepared an excellent beef. Lawrence the butler directs the staff in perfect execution of their duties. Unobtrusively they serve and depart. Compliments flow along the table to Elizabeth, gowned and jeweled, her white shoulders the envy of every wife present. The children have bid their goodnights and gone off with Mamselle to bed. Augustus whispers into my ear the news that Bolen has been fired.
“We’ll see how well his socialist principles suit him when his little brats are starving,” he says, smacking up the juicy meat with his colorless lips.
Standing in the doorway, I regard myself presiding at the head of the table. I hold my fork properly. I discuss the new exhibition at the museum. Champagne wets the fringe of my mustache as I sample the vintage in my glass. Arrayed in my stylish evening suit, I am a gentleman from sole to crown.
I slam the door on us all.
Which door tonight? I am standing in the great house in my dream, and impulse cries for something dangerous, unexpected. Yet the panel hung with knights’ shields might reveal an empty forest as likely as a clashing joust. That is how life should be, a tremor of anticipation before a closed door, a thrill of fear and ecstasy as your hand touches the knob. It almost doesn’t matter what greets you on the other side, for if it is the desired reward, your heart swells with joy, and if not, all your skill and cunning spring forward to grapple with the challenge. But if there is no tremor, no thrill, what point in opening?
A shining yellow door attracts me, and I step toward it. A warmth emanates from the panel; holding my palm an inch from the surface, I feel a golden heat like desert sand. Perhaps it is a camel caravan to Arabia. Perhaps only a bowl of Bridget’s fragrant butterscotch pudding. No—it is an alchemist’s lab at the magical instant of transmutation. My pulse quickens and my fingers touch the knob. Raising one hand to shield my eyes from the expected light, I turn the handle and step inside.
I’m falling! Plunging! No floors, no walls! Plummeting in darkness, I shriek and flail. The cold accelerates, my speed roars past my ears. I scream, filling my lungs with the blackness, scream, as I hurtle toward an unseen bottom—or none.
“No!” I fly up in bed and throw up my arms at the sudden blinding pain in my eyes. “No, no,” I moan. I am in my own room, my own bed, a flood of sunlight through the window shafting onto the satin coverlet. The sheets are contorted from my thrashing, twisted around my legs like a winding cloth. I tear them off and stumble out to the hall. All the doors are the same, massive walnut panels, safe, unvarying. I shiver as my heart subsides and resumes its painful, submissive beat.
“Mr. Dirk Bolen to see you, sir,” Lawrence announces. The butler’s voice betrays his indignation that such a person should dare to soil our doorstep. “Shall I say you are not available?”
“No.” I glance across the breakfast table to Elizabeth, whose eyes have widened in alarm at the name. “Show him into the library. Say I will come.”
“Really, Richard.” Elizabeth waits until Lawrence has departed before continuing. “How can you even think of receiving that man? The streets haven’t been safe since the strike started, and now he’s inciting the factory workers to join the miners and leave their jobs. It’s clear he means to ruin you.”
For a moment I say nothing, noting Elizabeth’s allotment of ruin assumes no partnership between us. But her fears are not unfounded. In the past two weeks there have been fights, beatings, attempted sabotage at the mines. All production has stopped, and no coal reaches ovens and hearths for miles around. Factories and offices are beginning to close. The town seems belligerent and uneasy, awaiting the next move.
“Perhaps the miners have cause for complaint,” I say. More broadsheets have been circulating, and it has been difficult to ignore their claims. “They die of cave-ins and lung disease. Their children eat bread crusts and wear thin shoes.”
“Exactly why we collected blankets for them last winter,” Elizabeth counters, “though little gratitude did they show. Surely you don’t sympathize with the strikers?” I have no answer, and Elizabeth’s face registers her disbelief. “Really, Richard. Have you lost all sense? Give them alms if you must, but for heaven’s sake don’t forget who you are.”
I shove back my chair in anger and depart. When I open the library door Dirk Bolen tenses, though not in fear. Rather it is the tenseness of a panther, an instant reaction composed of equal parts instinct and intelligence. He is but six feet from me, and though I let nothing show, a chill runs over my skin. I am said to be a well-made man, clean favored and slim, but in comparison to Bolen I feel my softness. His eyes are as dark as the coal he mines, and his black-rimmed fingernails shine from scrubbing but will never come quite clean. He is dressed in what passes for good clothes among their class, a jacket and trousers not yet patched. I have seen his wife, too, not beautiful like Elizabeth but slender and unbreakable as willow. Just last week Augustus set his dog on a crowd of the miners and even before the men could react, Bolen’s wife whipped up a crooked stick and whirled to face the mastiff, shielding her three little ones behind her skirt. I can imagine how much gratitude she showed last winter when our carriage arrived in their alley and Elizabeth descended to offer a used blanket. Facing Bolen now, I picture him and his wife together, imagining and envying the passion that consumes their bed.
“Mr. Cory,” says Bolen, and there is no hesitation in his voice. He dares speak to me as an equal. “I come to ask if you and the other owners be ready to talk with our representatives.”
“Talk?” I make a scoffing sound.
“Yes, talk, for that be the way civilized men settle their differences.”
“You and your followers are law breakers. We have nothing to discuss.” I speak the words haughtily, but my ears long to hear him reply. When I ride downtown, the people on the pavement all look my way. Now I yearn for Bolen to tell me what they think. Do they fear or admire me? Do they picture me with Elizabeth and the children? Do they think I am happy? Do they wish themselves in my place? But Bolen has not come to indulge me. He gazes straight at me, sparing no glance for the fine trappings of my library.
“We have formed a committee and written up our grievances. We want this strike no more than you.”
“Your children are hungry.” I snatch with triumph on his weakness, scourging myself as I realize this is not even an original thought, only an echo of Augustus’s gleeful whisper.
“They have been hungry before.”
“You can’t keep the strike going. Another month at most and your rabble will be clamoring to come back to the shafts.” Once again I damn myself for parroting Wiley.
“Another month and Grace Mines may not recover. Your shareholders are nervous, Mr. Cory. They worry about lost profits. And they know this won’t be the last strike, or the end of the workers’ movement.”
“Then why come to me?” My voice is scornful of its own accord. “I’m not the principal owner of Grace Mines. Talk to Augustus Wiley or George Fellows. Or do you choose me to receive your petition because I am the richest, the most powerful man in town?”
Bolen eyes me with a look that concedes nothing, as if the responsibility for what happens next is all mine.
“I came to you,” he says, “because I thought you might be different.”
A warm breeze drifts in the library window. Lawrence offers the gentlemen Havana cigars. Augustus swirls his brandy in his glass, a stiff, inelegant motion, as if he has never mastered the gestures of a connoisseur. George Fellows and Alec Marston talk in low tones until my butler departs. When the door closes, Augustus speaks.
The words evaporate from the air and reemerge like a verdict in my brain. I cringe.
“I’m against it,” says Fellows, a brusque, ruddy man whose business interests parallel Wiley’s and mine. “Threaten him maybe, scare him off. Or bribe him.” He flicks the ash from his cigar into a silver tray. “We don’t want to hand the miners a martyr.”
“But he’s ruining us,” whines Marston. He throws himself into a chair, despondent. Like me, Alec inherited his fortune, and the idea that any portion of it might be snatched away is unthinkable to him.
“Marston’s right,” says Augustus. “There’s talk at the factory of starting a union, the railroad workers have formed a committee. It’s all Bolen’s influence. If he were gone, the scum would have no one else to lead them.”
“Then kill him.” Alec tugs at his ruffled sleeve. “Make it look like an accident, an explosion at the mine.”
“Which would only reinforce their claims that the shafts are unsafe.” I draw a breath, prepared to take a bold step. “Perhaps we should talk to him.”
“Talk?” Augustus chokes on his brandy, and Fellows eyes me suspiciously.
“Any discussion would set a dangerous precedent,” says Fellows, and the other two nod. “No, let’s get this settled quickly. Autumn isn’t far away, and I’m sure we want our hearths warm and our profits secure by Christmas. My investments can’t wait.”
“Kill him,” says Marston. “Push him down a deserted shaft or shoot him in the alley. Just do something.”
“I know a man who can handle it,” says Augustus. “We’re agreed then? Marston? Fellows?”
“Kill him,” says Marston. “I don’t care.”
“As you wish,” says Fellows. “Time is money, gentlemen.”
“Richard?” Augustus cocks a thin eyebrow at me as I make no reply. “Well, speak, man. Whose side are you on?”
They stare at me, but their faces blur before my eyes. How I wish I were in my dream, each door different, beckoning. But here in my house, all the doors are identical, safe.
“Yours,” I say.
The night is not cool, yet I draw my cloak closer. The only light in the street comes from O’Malley’s bar as the last customers leave at closing. From the back door, a separate group emerges. They pause at the corner, speaking low. Beyond them the dark rows of workers’ houses file into the night. A cat yowls in the alley, and one of the men picks up his head to listen. I recognize the hard profile of Bolen’s face. A minute later, the group disperses and their boot heels clack away. Bolen starts up the street, then stops half a dozen paces from the wall where I wait in shadow. That same panther tenseness is apparent even in the dark, and it thrills me that he can sense my presence. I step into his path, cloaked and unrecognizable, and still he makes no move. Then his face shifts in surprise.
“Richard Cory,” he says softly.
“Your life is in danger, Bolen.” Already I am anxious to be away, chastising myself for being here.
“So?” I repeat his calm question with fury. “Do you care nothing for your life, man? Do you not owe it to your wife and children to drop this blasted strike and look after your own?”
“I teach my children by example, Mr. Cory. How do you teach yours?”
“Damn it!” I smack my gloved fist into my palm. “Don’t you realize the risk I take in coming here? I’m trying to warn you!”
“Unless you can tell me when and how, you tell me nothing I don’t already know.”
My shoulders slump. No, I cannot tell him when and how, having left it all up to Augustus. But for the past four nights since we met in my library, I have looked over my shoulder, kept my pistol beneath my pillow. Damn Bolen! Why isn’t he afraid? He’s the one who is going to die. And then he does a dreadful thing. He laughs.
“What are you so afraid of, Mr. Cory?”
I cannot answer. In despair I lurch away.
A week later the deed is done, a bullet in the back. Concealed behind a tree, I watch the funeral. Bolen’s widow lifts her veil to kiss the cheap casket as the men lower it into the ground, and on her pale cheek I glimpse a tear. But in her eyes is the same look I saw the day she faced the brutal dog.
That night I retire early, longing for my dream. When at last sleep comes and the doors appear, I reach gratefully for the first knob. A plain pine panel—I don’t care what lies behind. But when I open it, there stands Dirk Bolen, laughing at me. I start awake, gasping, then turn to my other side and sleep once more. The dream returns, and this time I select more carefully, a green door that seems to promise a restful meadow or a stroll across the lawn. But again Bolen greets me with a grin. In a panic I run up and down the hall, yanking open doors of every color and design. Bolen, Bolen, Bolen!
“Richard!” Elizabeth, in her robe, shakes me awake. “Stop that screaming! You’ll upset the household. Go back to sleep.” She leaves, her silk gown trailing on the floor, and my arms reach after her in vain.
But to sleep now is an impossibility, and I lie in bed, shifting from side to side till the uneasy morning dawns. And the next night is the same, and the next, always Bolen. My dream is lost.
A week later, Augustus comes to call.
“You haven’t been at the bank, Richard.” Having made himself at home in my library, he purses his lips as he takes in my haggard face. “You’re unwell?”
“I can’t sleep,” I say, too weary to dissemble. “Ever since Bolen’s funeral.”
“Can’t sleep? I should think Bolen’s unfortunate demise would have you napping like a baby.” He waves his bony hand in a gesture of conclusion. “The strike folded just as we predicted, and the conspirators at O’Malley’s have gone to ground. The workers in the factories and on the railroad are back in line. I myself have netted a considerable gain during the confusion.”
“But we killed him, Augustus! He’s in my dreams!”
“We killed him? Don’t be ridiculous. The unknown assailant is still at large despite the best efforts of our local police.”
“But we, I, ordered his death.”
Wiley regards me with contempt. “You had nothing to do with it, Richard. As usual, you left it all up to me. So don’t waste your time feeling guilty about Bolen.”
He leaves, and I sink back into my chair, pierced by the justness of his claim. That evening in my bedroom I take my pistol from beneath the pillow. Elizabeth has retired, the children are tucked in. The night is calm, my movements unhurried. All my life I have believed myself powerful, a great opener of doors. Now I see that from birth all doors have been opened for me; only in my dreams do I alone turn the knob. Which one shall it be tonight? My fingers curve onto the trigger as I place the gun to my head. A tremor of anticipation runs through me, a wondrous thrill.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1998)
Eureka Literary Magazine, Volume 7, No. 1, Fall 1998