The wind tears at the shingles that poorly cover the attic at the top of seven flights of stairs. The snow crystals, blown as fine as frost by the force of the tempest, buzz through crannies and sift upon the mean bed. Some shutters outside slam and creak with every frequent gale, and the snow clouds sweeping southward suffer a splendent blue-tinged star to turn a radiant eye downward upon the world.
Through a rift in the roof of the attic the star alone sees what transpires there that night. On the bare floor stands some rickety furniture, and in the center is a table on which lie paper, pens and ink, and stands a lighted candle.
The man who sits in the wooden chair with his elbows on the table, and a hand clenched beneath his chin, does not feel the bitter cold, albeit he is shivering in every limb. His hair is tossed back confusedly from a high brow, and in his eyes there shines a light that the star knows as it twinkles down a brotherly greeting. Genius is heaven-born and its light comes from a height on a level with the source of the star’s rays.
Suddenly the man seizes the pen and writes. He bends over the paper and his hand flies. He does not heed the howling wind or the deadly snow mist that falls around him. He writes and writes. The clock strikes, and when the hour has passed, and it clangs again, he dashes down the pen, starts to his feet and raises a hand with the fine gesture of a conqueror. It is a natural movement, for there is no one to see him but the star. “By Heaven!” he mutters, “I have won. I am the first in the field. The thought is mine and mine alone. It will live forever. There is nothing like it in literature; but why, oh, why, have I been made to follow such rugged, weary paths to have it come upon me in a moment as easily as falls a moulting feather from the breast of the eagle?”
He sits down again and reads what he has written. Then he lays it lovingly down. He does not alter a letter or erase a word. He knows it is perfect, and so tells himself; for true genius knows no mock humility.
The man’s eyes soften. The fire dies from them, leaving a warm glow that the star does not respond to. About his lips plays a lingering, thin smile that shows half pleasure, half contempt. He is artist enough to know that he has created an original idea, and he knows its value.
His far-focused gaze sees warmth, love, pleasure, wine, crystal, mirth, and living beauty—things that he is hungering for with a wolf-like hunger that adds self-contempt to his starved soul’s gnawings.
Suddenly the sharp whip of the present cracks in his ear and the cold strikes to his marrow and rouses him to action. He rises, dons a ragged overcoat, goes out the door, and down the seven flights of stairs. He returns directly with bread and cheese, wrapped in an old newspaper. He sits again, gulping down the food, which tastes like nectar of the gods. The star looks down through the crack and twinkles with heavenly sympathy, for the man has fought a long and very dreary fight to the end that he is now eating cheese crumbs, with drifting snow falling upon his shoulders. For the first time in many years the man wears the look of success.
He has gained in an hour what others have strived for during a life time without success. As the man eats he glances idly at the old newspaper that contains his food. The star sees him suddenly grip the paper convulsively with both hands, stare with burning eyes among its columns, and then, with a hoarse choking oath, stumble to his feet, whirl, and fall upon the bare floor.
In the morning, since he does not appear as usual, two men break open the attic door and find him there.
“Suicide?” says one.
“Starvation, more likely,” says the other.
“No, here’s bread and cheese. Case for the coroner, anyway. Cheerful sort of a den he lived in. Hullo, what’s this he’s been writing?”
One of them reads what the dead man has written, and says:
“It’s peculiar stuff. I can’t just make it out. Look at his hand; he’s got an old newspaper in it gripped like a vise.”
He stoops and forces the old paper from the cold fingers. He examines it from curiosity and dully stumbles upon the truth.
“Say, Bill,” he says, “here’s a funny thing. This old newspaper’s got an article in it very near exactly the same as that thing the gent wrote himself.”