The Story of An Old Letter
By Olivia Lovell Wilson, 1891
It was a quaint old desk, with its numberless little drawers promising mystery, and the brass knobs that caught the firelight and winked and twinkled back at the cheery blaze. A jolly inspiriting old piece of furniture, it had never grown dim in its polished oak, with all the years that had passed over it since Rosemary Alden's grandmother sat before it, writing her epistles.
But quite in contrast to its jovial smile at the wood-fire was Rose Alden's countenance today, as she sat, her chin upon her plump little hand, discontent making a furrow in her smooth brow.
Her pen lay across a finished letter, and she knew her words had been cold and hard as the steel pen she had used.
She was not pleased with herself or the world, and least of all with the person to whom this letter was to bring gloom and dispair.
She had tried to forgive him, she thought, and yet such careless neglect before marriage, when he should not have divided "a minute into a thousand parts, and break the thousandth part of a minute in the affairs of love"! What did it bode for her future?
So she said a few bitter words, and before he could explain or protest, conventionality had stepped between and they were forced to remain in mute discomfort through a long dinner given for their express honor as the happy betrothed.
He had written, the next day, too anxious to wait until they met; and pretty Rose, before her grandmother's desk, had just penned her cruel answer.
Sitting there in gloomy meditation, the maiden was so like a portrait on the wall that many people believed it to be Rose, clad in the costume of long ago. But, if one looked closely, it was not hard to discern a milder spirit in the eyes of the portrait, and a deeper glint of red in the golden hair.
This was another Rose Alden, who years ago had tasted life's first sweet pleasures, and, just as she was about to wed, had fallen asleep and been laid to rest beneath the snows.
The Rose Alden of today lifted, to her namesake's picture, eyes that were filled with tears. This Aunt Rose had been her grandmother's favorite sister, and when, years after, the little granddaughter came home to gladden her heart, she named her Rose.
Then, strangely enough, a grandson of that wooer of the first Rose had appeared to woo and win her nineteenth-century counterpart, and grandmother's satisfaction had been deep and intense.
But all this was over now! Rose began to fold her letter, when, suddenly her eyes fell upon the calendar. It was February 14th - St. Valentine's Day! The day he had laughingly said he would send her some proof of his love. And even that was forgotten! She closed her small teeth sharply, felt her grievance more than she could bear, and then a great tear fell on the folded letter lying beside its envelope, primly addressed to Walter N. Deane. Another tear followed the first, and then down went the bright head, and she sobbed aloud.
Presently she looked up proudly, dashed her tears aside, and took from a little secret drawer a small bundle of faded letters, tied with a pale-blue ribbon. Often had she thought she should look at them after love had been revealed to her, but a sweet delicacy had withheld her before; she had been too happy to think of it. Now she wondered how that other Walter Deane had written to the other Rose.
Slowly she turned over the quaintly-sealed letters, the seals broken by impatient hands that long since had folded over peaceful bosoms.
She found Walter Deane's letters and several from Rose to him. All were there together, worded briefly but full of love. Then Rose found one that made her tears fall fast; she read it twice, and her heart grew soft and more kindly toward her absent lover, yet she strove hard to retain her old spirit of defiance. Why should she attribute to this Walter Deane what his namesake never had possessed? Yet surely, if gentle Aunt Rose could say "I am wrong," might not she also be wrong and hasty in her judgement?
At this moment, Rose saw the postman coming up the street. In a second, her quick hands had dashed the sheet into the envelope. She caught up some other letters, one or two of which had been written by her grandmother, and gave them to that angel of our daily life, the penny-postman, and one more letter had gone to leave its mark upon a soul.
"It is done, and I am glad," said Rose, defiantly.
But she avoided the gentle eyes of the portrait and put the yellow love-letters carefully away, having picked one or two up from the floor, where her impetuous movement had hurled them. Then she closed the desk and left the room.
"What will happen now?" crackled the wood-fire, pleasantly; and the desk, despite its advanced age, winked from one of its brass knobs, as if to reply: "Wait and see!"
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LETTER
Someone has said I am to tell my own tale; so here I am, and I will begin at once by saying I am an old musty love-letter. I am not going to boast of my age, for I remember distinctly Mr. Byron once said something about age being good for wine, but very bad for women; and I fancy it would be much the same with old love-letters. Still, I am led to think without egotism that I have served my time twice, as one may say after reading of my late adventure.
It was never intended that I should be mixed up with the hurly-burly busy times into which I was plunged; but I had grown very weary of the pale-blue ribbon that bound me with a small company of bosom companions, and had determined, by using one of my last sighs, to break the bond that held me, when a pretty white hand unloosed the ribbon, and after holding me a while to be read, laid me down among a number of spick-span new white ragged-edged wrappers. All were addressed, and I was returning to my well-worn folds, with the name "Mr. Walter Deane" on my yellow side, for I had always held it my duty to keep in seemly folds the contents of my written sheets, when the owner of that pretty hand laid her head upon me tenderly. I saw her weep, and then I felt that one of the new letters had hidden me from her view. Suddenly we were all snatched up together, and I felt the cold air upon me and heard a gruff voice say:
"Oh, yes, they will all get into the fast mail!"
"Ah!" I sighed, "that means the stage and coach-and-four instead of the saddle-bags-and-one."
I was very much pleased to hear we were going by the fast mail, for I was beginning to feel nervous about getting out into the world again in time to see something of it before I really got too old to enjoy myself - although, for that matter, there is a tea-pot of my acquaintance that is so old she is cracked, yet she tells me she is invited to all the fashionable afternoon-teas for miles. But then she belonged to Mr. James Madison's great-aunt, which may account for her popularity. Family blood will tell, you know, and that is one reason I've always felt I belonged to the Aldens.
But pardon this digression.
The owner of the gruff voice took us all to a big building where there were so many letters that I was sure it must be the only large place in the world where all letters come and are distributed. But I found in this I was mistaken, for I passed through others quite as large.
The parcel I was in was seized upon by a wild-eyed youth, who first read this address, then that, and flung the letters into piles in the most careless manner. I clung to my companion, a shiny envelope addressed like myself, for I feared this youth would not let me pass; for what would he know about the Walter Deane I held a message for, since he was so young? Besides, I was bewildered by many new sights and sounds, and most of all by the new envelope, which also bore my name in a clear hand.
We were soon tied up in a bundle with fifty other letters, and then thrown among hundreds in a big bag. Think of it - one in a hundred! When in my day I had gone as a select number of twelve. I must confess I did not enjoy the mixed company I was in. Wrappers blue, green and yellow - not yellow from honorable age, as I was, but a pert fresh yellow - and no seals to speak of; and one very smart pink wrapper had the impertinance to tell me that people stick their letters together by using their tongues - as if I would believe such an absurd statement! I may have looked elderly, but I'm sure I'm not a dunce to be taken in by such chaff.
We were finally plunged into a great leather bag that went together with a snap, and then the wild-eyed youth said:
"Here, Jim, you'll have to hustle this mail, or it will be behind time."
"Hustle?" thought I. Now, what does "hustle" mean? It must be a new stamp they have made. But I soon found out what it meant. The bag was taken out and hung on a long wooden arm, and soon I heard the most horrid shrieking, and, a long way off, saw a frightful-looking monster coming toward us, smoke pouring from its head and fire flashing from one huge eye.
Nearer and nearer he came, and then every fibre in my being thrilled with fear, as all at once there was a fearful rush and snatch, and we were landed all in a heap, devoured by the horrid monster, which rattled on as unconcerned about the damage -as I thought - that he had done, as if it were a daily pastime.
"There!" gasped my near neighbor. "We did catch the fast mail."
"What is the fast mail?" I asked.
A very small square epistle near me rustled about a little and said contemptuously:
"Don't you know? Why, it is the fast train that carries the mail. The Flyer, don't-cher-know? Weren't you ever on a train before?"
"Never," I replied, too amazed to be angry with the flippant tone; "there was nothing of the kind in my day."
"And when was that?" said the young Pert.
"Nigh on a hundred years ago. We moved slower then. Sweet Rose Alden spent days in penning the love-message I carry, and the quill she used was sadly abused by her pearly teeth, as she nibbled its feathers and thought of her lover. Then I was carefully folded and pressed by her dainty fingers, and a seal with a Cupid design pressed on my back. Then I was sent with a few others in a pair of saddle-bags thrown across the horse ridden by the carrier. We plodded alongh over mud roads and not a few corduroy ones too."
"And what's a corduroy road?" asked young Pert.
"Why, don't you know what sort of road that is? Where did you come from, not to know that?" I asked, thinking it as well to snub him a little. But at this moment my close companion spoke to me seriously.
"My friend," said he, "are you also addressed to Walter Deane?"
"I am," I replied.
"Then I have decided to sacrifice myself for the sake of sweet Rose Alden," said he, solemnly.
"Will you kindly explain?" I asked, politely.
"Yes. I contain a message of unkindness for Walter Deane, from sweet Rose Alden. Almost before I was finished, she was sorry for having written me. I am not a cold-blooded creature. The spirit of repentance had already permeated me, even though I appear stern and forbidding. Tell me: do you not convey a tender message in your bosom?"
"I do; but alas! It was written by one who is long since dead. I am a hundred years old."
"Love - true love - never dies," quoth my new friend. "Your message will reach him as sweetly today as it touched its owner years ago. I do not mean to reach him. Let us change envelopes; then I shall cast myself in some odd corner and be sent to the Dead Letter Office, while you shall go to him, old as you are, and take him peace. Do you agree?"
"With all delight. But you surprise me. I find the romance of the past in this day of fast mails and hustlers. Are you in earnest?"
"Never more so. Learn, my friend, that progress can never change love, because its source is infinite and omnipotent. If you agree, I will say goodbye at once and detach myself from you. Then I shall soon become a dead letter."
At this moment, I felt a pain in my side, then found myself surrounded by "hustlers." I was confused, sad, and felt my end had come, when I was suddenly handed out in the light of a broad sunbeam and heard a cheery voice say:
"Here is a letter for you, Mr. Deane."
Then I was opened by a resolute hand, and I delivered my message:
"MY DEAR WALTER: It sorely grieves me to think how I misunderstood thee yester-e'en. I am sorry. I think I was very wrong, and ask that thou forgive me. Perhaps we both were hastie. I cannot tell, but this I doe know: I love thee, and cannot live without thy love.
Ever thy own,
The old desk winked with jovial hilarity from every corner of its polished surface, and the wood-fire crackled until it seemed to chuckle with pleasure, when in the twilight it cast its flame over the yellow paper of the old love-letter, and together Walter and Rose read again the gentle message of reconciliation.
"And you never got my other note?" asked Rose, resting her pretty chin against his shoulder.
"No, my darling. This came after your few sharp words. I thought it your own sweet mode of showing me my own fault."
"No, no; I was to blame. But I wonder where the other letter went? I must have put the old one in the new envelope. How strangely it has all happened!"
But the sweet eyes of the portrait, the yellow love-letter on the hearth, the glowing fire, and the quaint old desk all thought they understood it. Perhaps they did; who knows?
This story and more like it appear in my upcoming book,
True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen,
now available for pre-order from
Barnes and Noble and Amazon!