The Last Cigarette

By Greye La Spina

Originally published in Weird Tales, March 1925

(From the Crypt, the story is in the public domain)

MILTON WHEELER’S thick-set body shivered as he put a match to the wick of the oil heater, noting mechanically that the reservoir was almost empty. Before he could get more oil, he would have to settle that already large bill owing the grocer.

He paced the floor to stir his torpid circulation, rubbing his stubby hands together briskly.

His gray suit was much too light for November, and his undergarments —repeatedly darned and patched by Agnes’ hands—too thin to yield their original warmth. He owed the tailor for that new black overcoat; as for the underwear, he would first have to pay for last summer’s things and for the new black hat, before ordering other garments. A black suit he had not quite dared to order. Not that the tailor had actually asked for money, but he had observed casually that he wouldn’t send in his little bill until after the funeral.

After the funeral! Milton shivered again, this time not with cold. Everything was coming in—after the funeral.

He felt that Agnes had dealt him almost a personal blow by dying; without her co-operation, how could he keep up his pretenses? It would be a few days only, before his hated rival would learn upon how small a foundation had been built Milton’s house of sham. That Benson, who had in everything but the winning of Agnes triumphed over him, should learn of his failure to make a success financially, was to Milton a frightful tragedy.

Milton had had a few thousand dollars in bank, and a fair salary at the laboratory, when he married Agnes, winning her from Benson, who had large private means. (It was the first time since they two had been boys in school together that Milton had. triumphed over the other man.) It had been indescribably galling to him to think that Benson would ever learn how much Agnes had lost in marrying a poorer man. Agnes had rebelled at this deception in the beginning; she did not care, she said. But then she saw how keenly Milton felt about it—how his every thought was turned in the one direction. Poor girl! Her first unkind act had been her desertion of him at this critical moment.

Milton had managed to fool every-body. He had kept up a lavish establishment, spending his principal freely. He had bought Agnes everything that could make the impression of unlimited means upon the rejected Benson, whose keen eyes he fancied were always upon him. Agnes’ death, however, found him penniless; without a position; confronting a mountain of unpaid bills. Rent, unsettled for four months; groceries, the sum was almost staggering; butcher, how could they have consumed such quantities of meat?

​The doctor—somehow this account had mounted up to much more than Milton had anticipated. There must have been many visits to the office of which Agnes’ husband was ignorant; she must have kept her sickness from him a much longer time than he had realized. To the doctor’s statement Milton had pinned, with sardonic humor, bills from the druggist, the florist, the undertaker.

Then there were coal bills; laundry bills; ice bills. The sum of those items marshaled itself before him with malignant triumph, conveying to his shrinking spirit the overwhelming prevision of defeat.

Men were being turned away everywhere. He might be months finding another such position as he had been holding for four years. He might raise money to settle that appalling total of debt by paying the exorbitant interest rate of some loan shark, but even this would be only a temporary relief. Discovery of his castle of pretense was inevitable, and to him disclosure of the real facts meant such complete, such utter ruin, that the bare idea bowed him down into the very dust of humiliation. He could see Benson’s smile. . . .

* * *


There was only one way out. Death! It was distasteful to him, because his death under present circumstances would mean the disclosure of what he had for three years been struggling to conceal. His death, with the revelation of that appalling sum total of debt, would make him the subject of derision for his rival.

If there were only some way to escape without baring his sordid secret to the world! He whipped his dulled mind into unwilling concentration. And then—suddenly—he had it! Within the dusk the little heater cast a circle of friendly radiance. Milton threw a glance upward. . . The lamp hook in that great beam across the middle of the ceiling looked strong enough. In the laundry there was always plenty of good rope. He would bring up a stepladder. . . .

Half an hour later he jimmied open from the outside one of the study windows giving on the garden; the gusty November air swirled into the room, setting the curtains a-flutter. Upon the floor under his writing desk he laid a ten-dollar bill as if it had been accidentally dropped by hurried fingers. The balance of his last week’s salary he tore carefully into small pieces and burned, scattering the ashes on the night wind from the open window. He pulled out both desk drawers, tossing their contents upon table and floor as if some unlicensed intruder had gone through them hastily.

Upon the bronze tray on his desk he laid a sheet of paper, inscribed with a few terse, carefully thought out words. He had disposed of all his securities, he wrote, to charities in which he and his wife had been interested, but had left sufficient cash in the desk drawer to settle all outstanding accounts against his estate. He chuckled as he wrote, a humorless sound, and then, shrugging his thick shoulders, finished: “I cannot live without Agnes. I am going to join her.”

In those last moments he was capping the edifice of sham with the most marvelous of cupolas; he was putting the finishing touch to a work which for three years had been the driving force of his life. From boyhood he had had the worst of it with Benson, always; now Benson would be unable to smile in that slow, exasperating way of his. No, Benson would be obliged to think of him with astonished admiration.

He felt malicious enjoyment as he surveyed the indications of burglary, and the note that so well covered the traces of his supposed wealth. The fools would believe he had killed himself out of grief at the loss of his wife; ​they would continue to admire and envy him—and his secret would remain undiscovered.

* * *


Everything was ready. He lighted a cigarette contentedly. When he had finished this last smoke, he would climb the ladder, adjust the rope. . . . It would be the greatest triumph of his life, after all—this death. His only regret was that he could not be there to enjoy the effect of the stupendous climax.

His cigarette finished, he flung the butt away and mounted the ladder. He felt gingerly of the rope knotted about his neck, shuddering involuntarily. If it were not that by dying he was making his secret secure for all time—. After all, it was the only way.

Setting his teeth, he pushed against the ladder with both feet. It toppled to the floor with a crash.

As his body was whirled about by the tautening rope, a flare from the bronze tray on the desk caught Milton’s eye.

In that last poignant moment he had the mortification of observing that the cigarette butt had fallen upon and ignited the suicide note, that curled—crisped—blackened to a indecipherable ash before his agonized eyes.

End.

Greye La Spina was one of the few women to write regularly for the leading fantasy/horror pulps, and was a contributor to the very first issue of the first American pulp magazine devoted exclusively to tales of horror and the fantastic.

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