It is not often that real life supplies the peculiar sort of plot required in the hair-raising plays which have made the Theatre Grand Guignol of Paris, famous the world over. Yet a divorce case just tried in Stockholm, Sweden, presented evidence that shows a faithless wife and her male accomplice to have figured in scenes that could hardly be improved upon.
Divorce court records reveal many ingenious ruses whereby wives and husbands have secured evidence of the faithlessness of their wedded partners; but this appears to be the first instance of a husband accomplishing such a feat by having himself pronounced dead and placed in a coffin ready for burial.
That is the feat that was successfully performed by Karl Petersen, a well-to-do citizen of the Swedish capital. Upon evidence thus obtained the court granted him a divorce from the handsome woman to whom he had been married barely a year.
Owing to her beauty and many charming accomplishments, Mrs. Petersen’s former suitors and admirers were not altogether discouraged by the fact of her marriage to one of the wealthiest merchants of Stockholm. Several of them became frequent guests at the Petersen home. One in particular–a certain dashing young society man named Swen Egstrom.
Several months ago Petersen became suspicious that Egstrom was exceeding his duties as bundle-carrier and general utility man about the house. In fact, he more than half believed that the bond between his charming bride and Egstrom was of a nature that was reflecting upon his own honor. Petersen vainly endeavored to prove or disprove his suspicions, and then resolved upon spinning the strangest web in which an erring wife ever was entangled.
He feigned illness and made that an excuse to go to his country house for a few day’s rest away from the business and social whirl of the metropolis. He was accompanied only by two or three old and confidential servants.
The day after his arrival in the country, Petersen took to his bed and quietly summoned his confidential physician, to whom he stated his suspicions and outlined the details of his plan. The physician’s sympathies were with the husband.
“For a beginning,” said Petersen, “I want you to telegraph to my wife, saying that I am dying.”
“I will do that, willingly,” said the physician. “And I will manage to make you appear as dead as you are supposed to be, when the time comes. But I can’t see my way clear to signing any death certificate.”
“How long can you defer your official report of my death?” inquire Petersen.
“Will forty-eight hours be long enough?”
“Ample,” said Petersen. “I have reason to believe that within twenty-four hours after you have pronounced me dead my wife’s paroxysms of grief will have subsided sufficiently to allow her to give me all the evidence I need.”
The physician sent the telegram in the afternoon, and a few hours later received Mrs. Petersen’s answer that she would take the first train and reach her husband’s bedside on the next afternoon.
Petersen’s “illness” had an alarming change for the worse at midnight. At dawn the physician announced to the sorrowing servants that their master had passed away. The butler alone was in the conspiracy, for reasons that will become obvious. But he was naturally melancholy and, therefore, needed to add merely a touch more of solemnity to his features.
Petersen being of spare build and entirely without color in face or hands, it was a simple matter for the physician to add the corpse-like chill and rigidity that would deceive any ordinary beholder. He also undertook the “setting” of a scene in the library that would give the suspected wife every opportunity to betray herself.
A handsome burial casket had been timed to arrive before noon. This was placed on trestles in the library within a yard or two of a desk, on which was a telephone.
The physician took upon himself the duties of undertaker. Aided by the undeceived butler, he prepared Petersen’s corpse-like body for burial and placed it in the casket, Mrs. Petersen arrived escorted by the faithful Egstrom. The physician met them at the door.
“My poor, dear husband!” said the wife. “Do tell me that he is better.”
“Your poor husband suffered very little,” said the physician.
“Oh, he’s dead! My darling husband is dead!” exclaimed Mrs. Petersen.
The physician conducted the sorrowing wife into the library. He received her fainting form in his arms–for one glance at the white face in the coffin assured her that fainting was now in order.
Mrs. Petersen did not leave her room that night. Egstrom retired early to the chamber allotted to him.
The butler busied himself in the kitchen behind closed doors preparing a nourishing broth that could be safely taken by a dead man without bringing any tint of life to his cheeks.
The physician watched beside the coffin. Toward midnight he was awakened by a loud yawn. For a moment, confused by drowsiness, he was startled at the sight of Petersen sitting up in his coffin and drumming impatiently on its lid with his fingers.
“Did she come?” asked Petersen, who, in the interests of the conspiracy, had lain all this time unconscious under the influence of a drug.
“She came,” said the physician. “When she gazed on your dead face she fainted. We took her to her room, and she hasn’t left it since. Egstrom was with her, of course.”
“Did the fellow stay?” asked the “corpse,” eagerly.
“He did. We dined together and he recalled all your excellent qualities.”
“Good,” said the corpse. “There won’t be any more attention paid to me–not until I play my little joker.”
Petersen was restless in his narrow quarters, and to get out to stretch his legs and to get back in again would disarrange the coffin’s upholstery. So he suggested a game of cribbage.
“I’ll play you for the amount of your bill,” he said with a grim smile.
“Which bill? Doctor or undertaker?”
“Both, in their natural order,” Petersen came back at the facetious physician.
In the morning, the butler entered noiselessly and whispered;
“Mr. Egstrom is up, ready for breakfast. Mrs. Petersen has ordered her breakfast in her room, sir.”
The corpse bobbed down into its coffin, white hands folded across his breast. The doctor threw himself into an easy chair, puffing furiously on a fresh cigar to account for the unfunereal atmosphere of the room.
But these precautions proved unnecessary. The Petersen country house being isolated, there were no callers. Mrs. Petersen and Egstrom went out for a drive immediately after breakfast. Mrs. Petersen was sure that the doctor would make all arrangements. She was “too overcome to be of any use.” She and her “kind escort” probably would not return until evening.
“Good Lord!” sighed the corpse. “Another night of it.”
But he stuck to his resolution not to risk anything by getting out of his coffin.
Mrs. Petersen and Egstrom took breakfast together the following morning in the small breakfast room adjoining the library. Petersen could hear their cheerful conversation.
After breakfast the unsuspecting couple entered the library, carefully closing the door after them. They barely glanced at the coffin, never once looking inside, where Petersen lay with a most undeathlike flush of exasperation on his countenance.
Mrs. Petersen went directly to the telephone. Petersen heard her call up one of his most intimate business associates in tones that were so cheerful as to be almost gay she announced the joyous fact of her husband’s death.
“The will leaves everything to me, you know,” telephoned Mrs. Petersen. “I shall be rich–and you know what that means, naughty boy!”
Petersen could hardly restrain himself. It was lucky he did, for now he heard the vice of Egstrom tenderly rebuking Mrs. Petersen for holding out false hopes to the “fool at the other end of the wire.”
“La, la! Let me have my little joke with the old reprobate,” said Mrs. Petersen. “You know, Duckie, that I love no one but you, and never have.”
These two words were uttered in the voice of Egstrom.
Petersen sat up in his coffin. Mrs. Petersen and Egstrom, not two yards away, were clasped in each other’s arms.
At that instant the butler entered. The exposure was complete, witness included.
“Caught!” thundered the corpse, with bony finger pointed at the deceitful couple.
Mrs. Petersen, beholding the fearsome spectacle of her departed husband sitting up in his coffin and so justly denouncing her, fainted in dead earnest.
Egstrom was so scared that he let her fall to the floor. Then he ran from the room and dashed, hatless, from the house.
Petersen crawled out of the coffin and carried Mrs. Petersen to her room and sent for a physician–for truly she needed one.
When Petersen had regaled himself with a bath and a large steak with plenty of fried potatoes, he went back to the city and started divorce proceedings.
The divorced Mrs. Petersen is living in strict retirement. It is reported that the shocking scene of her departed husband sitting up in his coffin to accuse her had transformed her from a beauty into a nerve-racked old woman.
So, ladies, the moral is clear: Before you start in on your merry widowhood, make very, very sure your beloved husband is not just dead, but safely six feet under. Otherwise, nasty surprises may be in store.