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Autobiography of an Old Letter

From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander

I have set out to write my autobiography, and I believe that I shall not go back to the first of my existence and tell how the flax and cotton grew, was made into cloth, was worn out, and finally went as assorted rags to the paper mill; neither shall I tell how I was soaked, rubbed, pressed, glazed, cut, ruled, and sent out as writing paper; but I will tell you how I was laid away in a clean bureau drawer, perfumed with lavender and rose leaves, and was one day brought out and laid on a little table before the window, where sat an old lady with a placid, benevolent expression on her still comely face, a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles upon her nose, and gray curls escaping from her white cap.  She held a pen in her hand, and an old-fashioned inkstand sat with its mouth wide open, ready to do its part toward writing a letter; and I can assure you that I was ready, for I wished to be of use.  Mine had been an active existence, and I was anxious to try the novelty of my new life.

As I had been housed up so long, I took a whiff of fresh air and glanced about me.  It was a cozy little room; the rag carpet on the floor looked warm and cozy.  There was a crackling fire in the grate—for it was cool October—yet through the window I saw late flowers blossoming in the yard, clambering vines ruddy with glowing leaves, and a stretch of woods that I cannot describe—gold and scarlet flamed from the tree tops, and the lower bushes were one mass of glowing colors.

The dear old lady began to write.  When she had, with old-fashioned precision, put the day, the month, the year, she began: “My Dear Child.”  Then I knew that I should carry the message of a loving mother to a far-away child, and I was glad that my first mission was to be so holy a one.  As the letter progressed, I found she was writing to a daughter.  She gave her a glimpse of the old home, clad in its autumnal glory; messages from old friends and neighbors; and, lastly, a page of motherly counsel.  When she had concluded the letter, signing herself, “Your loving mother,” she laid her cheek softly against it for a moment, and I heard her lips moving, as if in prayer.  When she laid me down, a big tear fell with a splash upon me.  I carry the mark of that tear yet.  Then she added a postscript—“I send my little grandchild and namesake a bit of money to buy a new dress”—placed a smooth two-dollar bill within my folds, slipped me into an envelope with a three-cent stamp upon it, and called: “Mary Ann, Mary Ann!”  Mary Ann appeared, and I was consigned to her tender mercies, and she was told to hurry to the post office.  Then I took my last look at the pleasant little room, the kind-looking old lady, and hurried down the road in Mary Ann’s grimy palm.  She was a mulatto, with a great quantity of kinky hair standing out like a halo around her saffron-colored face.  I inferred that she was quite a scholar, from the way she translated the name and address on my face, and once I trembled for fear she had no respect for the sanctity of a seal.

We arrived at last, and Mary Ann, to my dismay, dropped me into a narrow slit in a door.  I had never had any experience in sliding downhill or riding on a velocipede, and was quite unprepared for the rapid descent.  However, I reached the bottom in safety, and found myself in a box full of letters of all sizes, colors, and thicknesses.

I slipped down very quietly into a corner, for I never liked to push myself on strangers; and just as I was getting settled, a thin-faced man with enormous spectacles on his red nose came and began to sort us out.  I was thrown into a heap with many others, and was finally hustled into a great leathern bag.  The lock closed with a snap, and I found myself a prisoner—in darkness, at that.

Then came rapid motion for a short time, then a deafening roar—a succession of shrill shrieks—and I was borne away.  O how fast we went!  It was like lightning; but I was so confined that I could not look about me.  One of my neighbors, who had printing all over his face, informed me that he had made the trip before, and that we were on board the mail train.

After a while we stopped, were tumbled down, sorted again, and I was changed to another leathern bag and slung into some place or other.  We moved on, but not like lightning, as we did before; for I soon found that I was in some sort of vehicle driven by a man who did not spare horseflesh, neither was he choice in the use of words.

After a long journey, as it seemed to me, he halted, and I felt myself lifted up and borne a short distance, and given into the hands of some one called “Charlie.” When I was tumbled out into the light, I found myself in a little room, whose sole occupant was a beardless youth, and he began to distribute us again into little boxes with labels on them.  It was growing late, and I heard Charlie tell an old gentleman that the mails would go out in the morning.  From that I concluded that we were to pass the night in our little boxes.  I was right.

Charlie began to stir around the little room, and I, peeping over the edge of my box, watched him.  He fished out a teakettle and saucepan from a tiny closet and placed them upon his little stove.  Into the kettle he poured water, and soon the puffs of steam from the spout showed that it was boiling.  Then he made a pot of coffee and emptied a can of oysters into his pan.  These he seasoned, and, when he had got some crackers out of a drawer, his supper was ready.

Just then there was a knock at the door, and Charlie, opening it, said: “Come in, Ned.  You are just in time; but—heigho!—what’s up?  You’re dressed to kill!”

I did not like Ned’s looks, though he was “dressed to kill.”  He glistened all over.  From the plug hat on his sleek head to the tight boots on his feet he was one shiny, self-important young gentleman.  He sported a watch chain with dangling seals; he wore a flashy cravat, and a flashy pin upon it; a ring or two adorned his fingers, and a light overcoat hung upon his arm.  Altogether, there was a great contrast between Ned’s new, glistening garments, and the plain suit of my friend, Charlie.

“What’s up?” Charlie asked again; for Ned stood there smiling, evidently enjoying the admiration which shone from his friend’s eyes.

“O, nothing much!” he said, laying aside his overcoat and taking the proffered chair.  “Only, a few of us young folks are in for a moonlight drive, and I came around after you.  I knew you would be in for it, if you knew anything about it; and you’re too good a fellow to be shut up in this musty room, while we are out under the stars, behind a fast horse on a smooth road.  Eh, Charlie?”

“Thank you,” Charlie faltered; “but I’m afraid I can’t go to-night.  The mails are all in, you know; and then, it is part of my business to stay here.  You see, I was just fixing my bachelor’s supper.  Will you join me?”

“I don’t care if I do.  But you must go, Charlie; we can’t get along without you.  I’ll help you put up the mails when we get back.”

“But that is against the law,” faltered poor Charlie.  “If it was found out, I would lose my place, if no more.”

“Nonsense!” said reckless Ned.  “No one would know it out of our crowd, and they all vowed eternal secrecy, if I could get you off.  Come, now, say you’ll go!” crumbling a cracker, as he spoke, into his oysters.

Charlie did not speak—or eat, either, for that matter.  He seemed buried in thought.

“Fact is,” said Ned, in an offhand manner, “I made so sure you would go that I hired a double buggy and the fastest trotters McClung could produce; and, more than that, I spoke to two girls to go with us, and they’re getting ready right now.”

Charlie looked up in wonder.  “Whom did you invite?” he asked.

“Lena Ross and Carrie Bell.  Now you’ll go, I know.  If you don’t, the fair Carrie will be lonely and inconsolable.”

“O, Ned!  How could you?” Charlie gasped.  “I cannot go, and Carrie will misunderstand it.  Why, boy, I haven’t a cent to help pay for the horses or to buy her a bonbon!”

Ned’s quick, restless black eyes roamed around the room, then he leaned over toward Charlie and whispered a moment; but the boy turned pale as death, and said: “No, no, Ned; not that.”  I cannot begin to record all that was said, but I soon understood that the precious young villain wanted Charlie to rob the mails; and I was just as sorry as a respectable letter could be to see that he was overcoming Charlie’s objections, but I didn’t dare to open my mouth about it.

“I’ll help you,” said Ned.  “Why, man, nobody will ever know it but you and I.  Let the registered ones alone; a good deal of money passes through in plain envelopes.”

“But how would I know that a letter had money in it?” Charlie asked.  The boy was trembling all over and his teeth chattered in his head.

“This way,” Ned replied; and I was snatched out of my box and held so close to the lamp that I grew quite warm.  “If there is silver, you can feel it; if there is greenback, there will be a dark square.  By hokey!” holding it closer.  “This one has got a bill in it.”

“Don’t destroy the letter—don’t Ned,” said Charlie, growing whiter, if possible.

“I won’t.  Look here, boy!  Just see how nicely the steam from this kettle is loosening this seal—there!  It’s open, you have got your money, and now it can be sealed up and sent on its way rejoicing.”

Charlie took me in his trembling hand.  He seemed weak and sat down upon a chair.  The two-dollar bill fluttered in his fingers, and his glance wandered mechanically to my contents.  “My Dear Child” caught his eye; and looking at the bottom, he read aloud: “Your loving mother.”

A cry broke from his lips.  “God forgive me,” he said, as though casting off a spell.  “I was about to become a thief.  Ned, let us return this to the envelope.”

“You’re a fool, Charlie—that’s what you are!” Ned blustered.

“I know it,” he said meekly, “but I needn’t be a rogue.  If I can’t get money without stealing it, I won’t have money.”

Charlie seemed to grow taller, his blue eyes flashed and burned, and it was Ned’s turn to stammer.

“O, don’t be a ninny!” Ned said.  “Who would ever know it?”

“I would know it and lose my self-respect; my God would know it; and my dear old mother might find it out some time, and then her heart would break.”

Ned unlocked the door and stepped out, and I thought I heard him mutter curses as he went away.  Charlie drew a long breath of relief and locked the door behind him; then he placed the bill back as it had been, and soon I was resealed and looking just as I did before Ned’s nimble fingers had broken into my contents.

Charlie held me in his hand a moment, close to his face, and then I heard him breathe repeatedly: “Thank God, thank God!”  Then I was replaced in the little box, and he sat down and ate his supper with a relish.

Charlie had a habit of talking to himself, and I heard him say: “Strange that the words, ‘Your loving mother,’ should have caused such a revulsion in my feelings.  My mother’s dear face rose before me, looking at a line written by some other mother to her child.  I am so glad it fell into my hands.  I will never even listen to temptation like that again.  A thief, a rogue—thank God that I am not that!”  He looked up, and I imagined that his vows were recorded on high.

The next morning I was thrown into another wide-mouthed sack, and the sack was slung across a horse, then a boy was slung across the sack, and we set out—jog, jog, jog, uphill and down dale.  How that boy did whistle and sing!  I don’t think he was silent ten minutes at a time during the ride.

At last we arrived at a country post office, and I knew that I had reached the end of my journey, after many ups and downs, the half of which have not been told.  I was poked into a pigeonhole of an old desk, other things—circulars, I believe—were packed in on me, and then I lay in dust and darkness.

I heard some one ask, “Any letters for Mrs. Lizzie Adams?” and I heard the answer.  It was, “No.”  Then I was shocked, but could do nothing, only lie still and clasp the two dollars in my embrace.

In a day or two I heard a voice ask, in childish treble, “Any letters for mamma?” and again the answer was “No,” although I felt sure that “mamma” was Mrs. Adams, and I was on my way to her, but not likely to reach her soon.

I heard a confusion of tongues a few days afterwards, and a woman’s pleasant voice said: “Are you sure there is no letter for me?”

“There is none,” said the voice again.

Presently the lady spoke again, with a resolute ring to her voice that made me want to cheer her: “Will you be so kind as to make a search?  Sometimes letters are overlooked.  I am expecting a letter from mother, and am very anxious to get it.

“O, I can look, if it will be any satisfaction to you,” said the postmaster; “but I know it is not here.”

Then the circulars, postal cards, and “specimen sheets” were tumbled out and I was revealed.

“Well, here is a letter for you, Mrs. Adams!  I declare I did not have the least idea of its being here.”

But the lady had broken the seal and was soon deep in its contents.  She smiled as she read, then she cried, then smiled again, and I thought here was a true April face.

“O, I am so glad to hear from mother again, and she sends money to buy little Ellie a dress.  Dear, dear mother!”

When we arrived at her home I felt that it was indeed a home to me, for I was getting tired of being battered and badgered about.

“Did you get your letter, Lizzie?” asked her husband.

“Indeed, I did,” she said.  “I felt like it was there all the time.”

Then he read it, and she looked over his shoulder and read it again with wet eyes; seeing which, he kissed her.  Then it was read to little Ellie, and held before the baby’s round eyes, while his little round mouth went through a kind of drill in saying, after his mother: “G’amma, g’amma.”

I was put away in a drawer, and the lady said, “I will write in a few days;” but a few days passed, and a few more, and still she did not write.  Housekeeping duties were many and the baby was teething.

But one day there came a message which brought deep grief to their hearts.  I heard the sound of sobbing and wailing, and the drawer was opened, and Mrs. Adams took me up.  “O my precious mother!” she cried.  “Is it possible that this is the last letter I will ever get from you?  And it is unanswered yet, and always will be.  How could I be so careless?”  Tears streamed down her pale cheeks and her form trembled with her great emotion.  I understood that the kind old lady was dead, that the hand which had traced my lines would write no more.  Mrs. Adams’ husband tried to console her by loving words and thoughtful tenderness, and in the course of time the first great grief passed and she could converse with hopeful resignation of the dear mother who had gone before.  I was laid away with other little keepsakes in a small casket.  There is some lace work done by the aged fingers, a tress of silvery hair, a picture, and a packet of letters.  I lie on the top; I am read oftenest.  It seems to me that I am the dearest, that I am a link binding them to an angel.

I am getting old and yellow.  I am not as strong as I once was; a breath of wind would blow me away.  Others are getting old—Mrs. Adams is getting old.  “Very much like your mother,” her husband tells her; and she, smiling, says: “I hope so.”  She has ceased to look backward to the loss of her mother, for she is looking forward to a glad reunion.

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