murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Where the Span Splits

“When my forty-fifth birthday comes around,” I replied calmly, “I know I will have been dead ten years.”



by Sam Heilman

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The Black Mask | Aug. 1920 | Vol. 1 | No. 5

Est. Read Time: 17 mins

He planned to kill himself to avoid Fate, but would Fate win in the end despite his carefully planning?




Tomorrow at 7:32 a.m. I shall have reached the end of my thirty-fifth year.

I have prepared a program for the morning that I have well-considered for fifteen years. At 6:30 I shall arise and breakfast with good appetite. From 7 to 7:25 I shall occupy myself in filling the bath-tub and regulating the temperature of the water. It will take at least fourteen minutes to get the exact warmth desired, something between 98 and 99 degrees, Fahrenheit.

Having completed this task to my satisfaction I shall go into the living room, place a record of Massenet’s Elegy on the music machine and start it off, softly and slowly. I shall then return to the bathroom. Again testing the water and regulating the flow of hot and cold to maintain the required temperature I shall climb into the tub. With a razor I shall cut the arteries in both wrists.

This will be done at 7:32 exactly — the hour of my birth and the end of my thirty-fifth year.

I shall lie back contentedly and laugh. My body and the water, being in caloric harmony, there will be no pain. This I have learned of the Romans, who, of all men, know best how to live splendidly and die luxuriously. To the compassionate music of the Elegy I shall glide and melt into the Infinite with the quiet smile of a victor.

For I shall have defeated the Law of Compensation, beaten it as it never has been beaten before.

I am not insane. A cringing, spiritless, whining world will doubtless call my act one of an unbalanced mentality but what care I? I have no reason that society would accept for this deed of self-elimination. I have no financial difficulties, no worries prey on me, my health is perfect, I have not been unsuccessful in love — in fact, as I write this tonight, I am exuberantly and exultingly happy and care-free. When the cat pounces the rat will not be there. I can picture his look of chagrin.

I am putting this on paper, not that others may profit by my example, for I know they will not. Frankly, I am doing it in a spirit of braggadocio. I want a world of rats to know that one rat has escaped the claws of the inevitable. I want it known that the years that are mine I have taken and used to the utmost. The years that Compensation takes unto itself I shall not intrude upon. We are quits. We are breaking even and to break even with it is victory for me — complete, smashing, thorough and absolute.

Even at the risk of being tedious I shall go into some details for it is only in this way that the full extent of my triumph can be made plain to a race of futile, unthinking, servile pawns.

When I was twelve years old my father died. He was in the thirty-sixth year at the time. He had been ill for many months with a malady that must have been extremely painful. His groans broke into my sleep at all hours of the night. I often heard him plead with the doctor for morphine.

”If I only could die,” he moaned in his agony.

I remember the sufferings of my mother as she nursed him. She had been a pretty and joyous creature but in those dreadful months the pink in her cheeks fled before a dead sallowness, the eyes that had once laughed and sparkled with the joy of living lay drearily deep behind dark circles, the lustre departed from her hair, a hopeless stoop came into her shoulders and the shuffle of despond into her feet.

I think I was glad when my father died. I cried at the funeral, not because of his passing, but because of her he had left behind — that broken, crushed mother of mine.

At twelve one is not given much to speculation or introspection, yet I wondered. Why had my father been tormented so? His death I understood clearly. That was merely the end, and I knew that all things had to end, but why the torture of his last hours?

He had been a kind-hearted, gentle soul, considerate and self-sacrificing. He had worked hard for mother and me, he had given of his substance to the needy and bent a shoulder to the feeble. His life had been clean and wholesome, yet he had been smitten with flaming darts. I could think of no reason.

Six months afterwards my mother died. She, too, suffered greatly, I know, but so weak was she in spirit and body that no voice was left loud enough to cry her agony. My wonder increased. Why had she been smitten so?

I went to live with my father’s brother. Uncle John was thin and inclined to irritability, yet he treated me with much kindness, unsmiling but very real. I remember one evening when Aunt Susan had sharply called me in from play to my neglected studies, he had said:

”Let the boy alone with his fun. Later on he will have troubles enough. Don’t rob him of his blessed childhood.”

And he had sighed.

There were two other members of the family, one a boy about my age, good-natured and full of animal spirits, the other an older sister of Aunt Susan, a sweet-tempered, self-effacing little woman, who had been born a cripple. One leg was shorter than the other. Congenital hip-disease, they called it. I grew very fond of Aunt Stella.

Uncle John was troubled with dyspepsia. After each cautious meal he took pills. They didn’t seem to help him much for I still recall his distress on the few occasions when he grew reckless and tasted of forbidden things. I remember the half-sorrowful, half-envious look in his eyes as he watched George and me romp around the place, slide down the balustrades and in other boyish ways give ear to the call of strident vitality within us. The wistful eyes that observed us as we gorged at meal times come vividly before me, even now.

One winter’s day when the sidewalks were icily slick, Aunt Stella fell on the sidewalk and hurt her bad hip. There was an operation, gangrene and finally the great emancipation.

”Uncle,” I said, three days after the funeral, “why did Aunt Stella suffer so?”

He seemed startled for a moment. Then he answered:

”My boy, when you are about twice as old as you are now you will understand. It is the law of compensation. We all must pay for what we take out of life.”

I questioned him further but he would not pursue the subject. I didn’t sleep much that night. My mind was racing with the problem of compensation but making little headway. In the course of a restless doze I dreamed that angels and demons were fighting for the possession of my body. The angels seemed to be hopelessly outnumbered and were getting the worst of it when suddenly they came over to the side of the demons and joined them sticking knives and pitchforks into me.



Life at Uncle John’s soon returned to its normal gait. George and I again romped all over the place although I felt myself a bit subdued and prone to spells of puzzled reflection. My Uncle’s attacks of dyspepsia continued and Aunt Susan complained almost constantly of feeling poorly without any definite ailment as far as I could learn.

We had many visitors. Mostly they were men and women in the late thirties and forties. Although much of the conversation was beyond me I liked to sit quietly in the large living room and listen to the callers. I believe it was during this period that my views relative to the Law of Compensation took coherent shape.

While my foster-parents’ friends discussed every subject under the sun there was one topic upon which each and all spoke fluently and often — their ailments. Everybody seemed to have something the matter with him or her.

Mrs. Austin had neuralgia, Mr. Hawkins had a heart lesion, Mr. Swift suffered from constant, inexplicable pains in the back, Mrs. Steffens brooded about an incipient goitre, Mr. Holliday was worried with a tenacious cough and Mrs. Taylor’s stoutness preyed on her mind.

Of all the visitor’s my favorite was John Shelton, a school principal. He had no particular malady except that his eyes gave him trouble. He complained that they hurt when he read at night.

”Mr. Shelton,” I said to him one evening when we happened to be alone in the living room, “do all people get sick when they get to be thirty or thereabouts?”

He laughed good-naturedly.

“That’s a funny question. Of course, not.”

”Why is it, then,” I asked, “that people of that age are always talking about their ailments or looking worried? There’s you, for example. Why aren’t you happy all the time, like I am?”

”Oh, you’re young,” he replied. “You have no cares, no responsibilities. There’s nothing to keep you from being contented twenty-four hours in the day.”

”That’s what I thought,” I replied. “As you grow older you get the things that make you unhappy.”

“That’s the way of life,” he answered soberly. “Take my advice, young man, and get all the pleasure you can out of your boyhood. The sweetness of living is now yours.

Suddenly he turned with a laugh and said:

”Paul, do you know where your heart is?”

”Certainly,” and I struck my left side with the hand.

”You’re wrong,” he smiled. “It’s here!”

He pointed to a spot three inches to the right of the place I had indicated and two inches lower.

“Know where your stomach is?”

I showed him where I thought it was.

Apparently I knew less about the stomach than I did about the heart. I was somewhat ashamed and told Shelton that we had just started the study of anatomy at high school.

”Books will never tell you just where your vital organs are,” he said, “and the longer you remain in ignorance the better off you will be. When you do learn exactly where your stomach is, it will be the finger of pain pointing it out. Suffering is the perfect instructor in anatomy.”

Just at that time other callers arrived and the questions trembling on the point of my tongue went unasked. Afterward he avoided the subject of anatomy.



The next three years passed rapidly, happy, joyous, unrestrained years. My plan of life was rapidly developing. I was determined to squeeze out of existence every drop of happiness it contained before the location of my heart was known to me with exactness.

When I was not playing I observed men and women along novel lines. I read faces for signs of content and unhappiness. I fell into the habit of checking up the number of times I had seen this or that individual in a month, how many times he had been smiling, how many times he had been frowning, how often he had appeared at ease, how often worried. I did not let these studies interfere with my main program. I sought enjoyment with almost hysterical insistence. I would permit nothing to depress me, nothing to divert me from my purpose.

At eighteen I was sent to college. Because knowledge came easily I was a good student. Had it been otherwise I would have quit the pursuit of learning and sought less strenuous occupation.

I had a room-mate, Arthur Gates, a jolly, harum-scarum, rich man’s son, who worshipped at the shrine of Play as feverishly as I. Although he was not lacking in serious moments he was dumfounded, I know, when I told him my secret.

We had been in the history lecture class together that afternoon when the instructor suddenly turned pale, clutched his coat lapel and fell at the foot of his desk. He was a man of about forty and seemingly had been in good health. We helped take him home. I learned that he was a sufferer from angina pectoris, an unusually painful affliction of the heart.

In our room that evening Gates mentioned the instructor’s illness.

”That could never happen to me,” I remarked.

”Why?” he asked. “Have you a guarantee on your heart?”

”No,” I answered slowly, “but I shall not live that long.”

”What are you talking about? Duckworth isn’t over forty-five.”

“When my forty-fifth birthday comes around,” I replied calmly, “I know I will have been dead ten years.”

Gates laughed.

”Been to see a fortune teller?” he jeered.

”No, but on the day that I finish my thirty-fifth year I shall kill myself.”

”How do you know,” asked my room-mate, “that you won’t get angina before you’re thirty-five?”

”I don’t, but it’s hardly likely. The percentage is in my favor.”

Gates was beginning to be impressed with the fact that I was serious. He gazed at me with puzzled eyes.

”Arthur,” I said. “I want you to listen to me for a few moments. What I am about to tell you I have told to no other person and will tell to no other person. I feel that I must unbosom myself to someone. Will you listen seriously?”

He nodded.

I went on:

”I am now twenty-one years old. I have excellent health, plenty of money, no troubles, domestic or otherwise, and what are regarded as excellent prospects. Yet, I tell you in cold blood that at 7:32 a. m., on April 6th, 1920, I shall end my life. That will be the exact hour of my birth, thirty-five years before. Just how I shall do it I do not yet know. Naturally I shall take the least painful and least unpleasant way.”

”But why?” interrupted Gates, who had been watching me with strange fascination.

”That,” I replied, “will develop in the course of what I am about to tell you. Understand I am not trying to influence you in any way. I know that you will not agree with me. When I was a boy my father and mother both died in great agony. I can see them now, gray with torture, their pallid features furrowed with the lines of suffering and the perspiration of pain on their foreheads.

“I can still hear my father pleading for death — death that stood outside the door leeringly biding its time.

”Afterwards I lived for many years at the home of an uncle. There I saw more suffering. I began asking myself these questions — Is life worth living? If so, how long should one live? When do the tears of existence begin to outweigh the smiles? At what point in the span do the joys of carrying on no longer balance the sorrows?

”In seeking answers to my interrogations I made a close and detailed study of scores of men and women. I watched their faces and searched their souls. I have continued the researches at college, coldly, scientifically. I have tables and charts and masses of statistics, and the conclusions I reached by observation have been borne out by analysis and precise data. And my conclusion is this: The average life after thirty-five is not worth living.”

I saw a “why” trembling on Gates’ lips and went on:

”The span of human life is seventy years. In the first thirty-five we sow, in the other thirty-five we reap. It is the Law of Compensation. The pleasures and enjoyment of existence are freely bestowed in the first half of the span, but the bills begin coming in with the thirty-sixth year. I have made up my mind not to pay. When the collector comes I will be out.”

My room-mate shook his head.

“That’s certainly a bizarre theory,” he said.

”It’s not theory,” I returned. “It’s a fact, a grim, irresistible fact. As I told you, I have reached my conclusions by way of scientific research.”

”But how?” asked Gates. “I don’t understand.”

”For example,” I replied, “I have gone to a man of thirty-seven night after night for a month and reviewed the entire day with him. I have tabulated the whole of his waking hours under three heads — Joy, Sorrow, Neutral.

“Under the first caption I have listed everything, no matter how trivial, that afforded the subject content or satisfaction.

“Under Sorrow I have scheduled every disappointment, every ache, every annoyance, no matter how petty — everything he had hoped would not happen, and so on.

“Under Neutral I have put these things that could not properly be classed under either of the other headings.”

”And the result?”

”In the particular case I am speaking of there were twi:e as many notations under Sorrow as there were under Joy. I conducted my inquiries with a great number of men and women over a long period and the results were about the same. With younger persons it was just the reverse. The dividing line seemed to be just at thirty-five. Between thirty and thirty-five the Joys and Sorrows about balanced with a great number of notations in the Neutral column. Under thirty the Joys and Neutrals seemed to have the field pretty well to themselves.”

”Often, of course, the Law of Compensation begins operating lightly and years may elapse before the victim notices that he is being dunned for payment. But settlement must be made and it is made through the body, through those held dear, through ambition, pride, vanity, through everything that is cherished and clung to. But I am going to dance and leave without paying the piper.”

Gates listened quietly to my conclusion and with serious expression.

After a moment of silence, he said, “The ordinary person would laugh at you, Paul, and call you crazy, but I believe that I understand you. Boyhood sorrows have merely distorted your views of life. I have no doubt of your sincerity and I do not question that right now you believe that you will kill yourself when you are thirty-six. Permit me, as a friend, to doubt it. I venture to say that you will be married in 1920, be the father of several children and would blush and stammer like a schoolgirl if I should happen along and repeat what you have just told me. You are young and in the next fifteen years your conception of life will undergo a radical series of changes.”

”No, Arthur,” I returned, “I shall not change my mind. I propose to enjoy the time I have allowed myself to the utmost. At the end of that period you will read of my death — if you haven’t forgotten all about me. That’s all. Let’s go down town, have a few drinks and see a show.”

Gates was glad to go. I never mentioned the subject of my plans to him again. During some of our boisterous celebrations I often caught a queer smile in his eyes, but he said nothing.

After graduation we separated. Gates went to his home in California while I moved to New York. For a few years we corresponded in a loose fashion and then lost touch.

I lived up to my set program. With a generous income I was able to do about what I pleased. I went where I wished, ate and drank what and where I wanted, and did little work except that connected with looking after my property. I remained free of serious love entanglements, my health continued excellent and I had no worries. I do not recall an ache or a pain or a severe disappointment in fifteen years.

There was a girl — her name is of no moment — a girl of wondrous beauty and celestial character, who did stagger my resolution for a brief spell. When I felt myself weakening I went to Bellevue Hospital where I knew a house surgeon, and walked through the wards. The Law of Compensation was operating on high gear that evening. I finished my tour, had a good laugh and never saw her again.

So this is the last night. I feel strangely happy. For my final repast I have ordered a royal gorge. I shall dine heartily at midnight and drink many a glass of rare vintage to the vanquished Law of Compensation. Then to bed for a few hours of calm rest. After that, tomorrow morning and 7:32.



The following letter was received in the coroner’s office from Dr. J. P. Sypes:

Dear Sir:

The enclosed communication or manuscript was found on a table in the room where Paul Traverse died last night. His death was entirely natural and was due, as stated in the burial certificate, to acute gastritis. The attack followed upon an unusually heavy meal he had eaten before retiring. The matter I am sending you was, I presume, a literary effort on his part.