The Queer Adventures of a Valentine: AS TOLD BY A LETTER-BOX.
BY ELIZABETH PHIPPS TRAIN.
There is a popular and erroneous impression in general acceptance among people, that we, conglomerate atoms of inanimate nature, are, because of our passivity, senseless and uncomprehending. It is a mistake, and yet I care so little to prove our equality, in this respect, with human beings, that, were it not that I feel convinced of my own power to tell a tale superior in every respect to the quantity of unreadable trash in the shape of MSS. that is confided to my care, I should prefer to rust into my grave, rather than force myself into notoriety by demonstrating the fact by actual and incontrovertible evidence.
The story which I am about to relate extends over the space of a year, and embraces two fetes of St. Valentine. It is only a true little tale of ordinary human passions—love, jealousy, and hatred—not a powerful, thrilling tragedy with great dramatic climaxes and blood-curdling situations and dénouements, such as I read sometimes in the still watches of the night, before the critical eye of the professional reader scans them with merciless severity; but a short story of certain events in the lives of a few obscure, unknown individuals which have come under my personal observation.
It was a raw, gusty afternoon in February, the 13th day of the month, as I knew from the mass of embossed envelopes of all sizes and descriptions which had been shoved down my throat during the day. My jaws positively ached from incessant opening and shutting, and even my capacious abdomen was constantly filled to repletion, notwithstanding the kind and regular efforts of my friend, the collector, to lighten my load. The last deposit had been a box of such dimensions that, in the attempt to squeeze it into my weary mouth, the sender had nearly suffocated me, and I was sick and tired of the whole nonsensical business. The street lamps were being lighted, and the approach of night was heralded by the swift on-coming of the grey shadows of her outriders. The bare, gaunt branches of the leafless trees bent and bowed low in homage to the advent of the ebon lady, while aloft, in the dusky heavens, the faint light of a silver crescent and tiny, twinkling points of brilliancy showed that not on earth alone was honor being done her sable majesty.
I was tired to death, as I say, and was about closing my eyes, hoping that I might catch a few winks, when I heard a soft patter of steps gradually slackening until they finally came to a standstill by my side. I opened one eye slowly, and then, being rather pleased and conciliated by the prospect, unclosed the other. Before me stood, in evident hesitation, a slender, delicate maiden of perhaps eighteen years, poorly clad, but of a sweet, fair countenance, balancing, undecidedly in her hands, an envelope of the description above alluded to. There were many emotions legible on the shy, young face; a tender perplexity in the gentle blue eyes, doubt and timidity in the quiver of the pretty, curved lips, and embarrassment in the delicate flush on the transparent skin. There was apparent indecision in the action of the shabbily gloved hands which now raised the missive to my eager lips and anon drew it tantalizingly away. Evidently she could not quite make up her mind to taking the irrevocable step, and I was becoming quite fearful lest I should lose the opportunity which I desired of discovering to whom and of what nature this valentine might be, when my hopes were quite dashed by an incident which took place.
Down a side street came the clatter, clatter of a pair of high heels, a sound which, in her abstraction, the young girl failed to notice until it had almost ceased, when a loud voice proceeding from the owner of the noisy articles startled her out of her reverie.
“Hello, Annie! cold, isn’t it? Going my way or waiting for Paul Benson, eh?”
The words were accompanied by a significant wink and chuckle which not even the florid beauty of big black eyes, full, red lips and glowing cheeks could render other than coarse and vulgar. The other shrank and lost the dainty flush of embarrassment in a still, white heat of anger, and the contrast between the two girls was that of the vivid full-blown peony and the quivering mimosa.
“Neither the one nor the other, Miss Hardy,” she said, in a low, cold tone. “My way is entirely the opposite of yours. Good night,” and, slipping the missive quickly into her pocket, she passed on.
But the swiftness of her action was yet too slow for the eyes that watched her, and knowing the vacillating character of woman’s nature perhaps better than Florence Hardy, after deliberating a moment, moved into the shadow of a projecting door-way and waited. The receding figure of the girl soon diminished its swift pace, which grew slower and slower until it became a mere saunter which, after a few halting steps, stopped entirely. Evidently the anger aroused by the taunting words of the girl named Hardy had been dissipated by a more potent emotion and the temptation to send the dainty, white messenger on its way had overcome her fear of observation, for, turning suddenly, she walked swiftly back, opened my mouth with a soft but determined movement, thrust in the valentine without a moment’s hesitation and moved away.
Oh, how I longed for a voice, no matter how feeble a quality, to whisper in the small shell-like ear a warning that the black, lustrous eyes of her enemy were still watching her from the concealing door-way: I could do nothing to aid in this little romance, of whose secrets I was being made custodian, but resolved to satisfy my curiosity by a peep into the enwreathed and flower-decorated envelope which was bearing a message of love from the sweet, pure heart of the gentle maiden to some unknown and perhaps careless lover. Peering, by virtue of the privilege which I enjoy, through the cheap, thin paper of the cover, I saw— not one of the gaudy, high-colored effusions which are, on these fêtes, Cupid’ s stock in trade—but a small, square sheet of paper across one corner of which was tied with virginal ribbon a fragrant, lovely cluster of deep purple violets, while beneath, in a slender, girlish handwriting, were the following verses:
Hast ever sought a violet, love,
Deep in the forest’s heart?
Hast ever watched the tiny thing
Thus shyly growing apart?
Hast ever plucked a violet, love,
And laid it on thy breast?
Dost know the weight of perfume rare
By which its heart’s opprest?
So, like the violet in the wood,
Has grown this love of mine
For thee; I’d share its fragrance with
My faithful Valentine!
I was so interested in reading these lines that I forgot to notice the movements of the girl in the doorway, and soon the appearance of the collector warned me that I had been none too quick in mastering the contents of the envelope. He was a good-looking, jovial young fellow, with an eye to a pretty girl—as I had frequently remarked—as he pursued his duties and, while he unlocked the door of my heart, he whistled a merry tune which was broken abruptly as a loud, familiar voice accosted him:—
“Here, Mr. Jennings, wait a moment. I’ve been waiting for you the best part of an hour.”
“Good evening, Miss Hardy! What can I do for you? Got a valentine too big for the box, for your best man, and want me to put it in here?” motioning to the huge, striped ticking sack which lay on the pavement at his feet.
“No, not exactly. If I was going to send a valentine to my best man, I wouldn’t send it much further on,” with a bold, coquettish glance from the black eyes which made the young fellow color with pleasure. ‘The truth is, I want you to do me a favor. It’s rather against your rule, I guess, but twon’t do any harm, as it’s my own property that I want to get back again, and no one will be the wiser. You see”—coming quite close to him and laying a large, well-shaped and gloved hand on his arm—”I dropped a valentine into that box, an hour ago, to one of my old beaux and, come to think it over, I guess there ain’t much use in keepin’ on an old affair like that, when my feelings are all for someonè else, so I want you to get it back again. You’ll give it to me, won’t you?”
There was an eagerness in her tones which should have warned him that some deeper designs lay behind her apparently frivolous desire; and oh, how I yearned for a voice that I might testify to her base purpose! But alas! “The woman tempted me and I did eat.” Soon the dainty white envelope with its address of
“Mr. Paul Benson,
Care Messrs. Harding and Cole.
New York City.”
lay in the out-stretched hand, a few tenderly intoned thanks and Ralph Jennings’ lapse in duty had brought suffering and sorrow to one young heart, anger and wounded vanity to another, and the gratification of an evil desire to a third. By just such a trifling misdemeanor was the whole Pandora box let loose upon the world.
The next morning I was awakened early by the pressure of a hand upon my mouth, and, being very sensitive to personal influences, I felt such a shudder of repulsion at the touch, that I opened my eyes and found that the person who had so affected me was no other than the girl called Hardy. Now was my time for retaliation, and, quick as a thought, I brought my upper lip down upon her fingers with such a force that she gave a little scream, and muttering, “that vile box,” turned away. I glanced at the letter she had forced down my unwilling throat, and, to my great surprise, found the envelope the same as that she had abstracted the evening before, save for the addition of two small initials in the corner—A.C.
Determined to see if, indeed, the girl had repented of her evil act during the night, I peeped through the cover to discover if the original contents remained intact. Alas! what a change had been wrought. Instead of the dainty bunch of violets and the tender little plea for love, a coarse, common sheet of paper bore one of the vile caricatures, with its miserable attempt at versification, commonly known as “comic valentines.” Now I divined the creature’s wicked intentions, and did my best to foil it by contracting my person so that the ugly imposture fell down into my remotest corner. My efforts were in vain, however, for when the collector again made his rounds, he gathered it in with the others, and I was left, lonely and desolate, to bemoan its wretched transformation.
Days and weeks passed by, and the miserable trick played upon this little romancer so disgusted me with human nature that I quite lost my interest in reading the letters confided to my care. Often I saw the young girl called Annie pass and repass my house, and with pain and sorrow I watched the increasing lassitude and fragility of the slim, girlish frame. She probably worked in some shop, or perhaps sewed for her living— the latter I rather think, for I remember that she often carried a bundle, as of work. It was some weeks before I overcame my contempt of humanity sufficiently to care to peruse its affairs, but finally I resumed my interest in my old amusement, and one day, in May, was again made the recipient of a letter of Miss Hardy’s. Her already exhuberant manner had gained an. added boldness, and she bounced across the street and accomplished her errand with a swaggering gait and insolent air that were in great contrast to the languid pace and shy demeanor of her quiet, gentle little rival.
Ah! What a dreadful thing is this lack of speech, when one is a mute witness of wrong and evil doing! As I read the notice addressed in a coarse, round hand. to Annie Chase, I felt what a curse my dumbness had been in hindering me from righting, before it was too late, the wrong which had been committed. This was the announcement on the newspaper clipping which was on its way to the poor young sewing girl:
“Hardy-Benson. In New York City, April 19th, by Rev. Samuel Small, Florence Hardy to Paul Benson. All of N.Y.”
For a week she did not appear at all, and then, one morning, I saw her coming. Was it she, or was it her ghost , I wondered, that approached in the early morning sunshine? I could see the golden nimbus about her fair white face afar off, before I could distinguish the features or discover the terrible change in the countenance. I had thought her fading so fast that nothing could hasten the alteration; but one glance showed me the wide difference between even a feeble hope and utter despair. So wan, so white and spirit-like was the gentle, pitiful face, that I wondered there was strength sufficient in the fragile form to support it.
One night, in June, I saw the man whom she loved. It was a very warm—almost a hot—night, and she was toiling wearily up the street with a huge bundle in her arms, when, just under the light from the lamp above, she came face to face with a tall, fine-looking fellow of, perhaps, twenty-five years. The suddenness of the encounter betrayed her. She gave a soft, pitiful little cry, “Paul!” and then, her strength forsaking her, leaned against my iron frame for support. I could feel the painful quivering of the slight body, the delicacy and attenuation of the slender limbs—and he! Ah, you would have pitied him, too! the strong, stalwart young fellow, as he gazed from the height of his splendid manhood down upon the transparent beauty of the face, whose terrible alterations were so marked under the brilliant light of the lamp.
“Annie!” he cried, “My God! Annie!”—incredulously, as if he could scarce believe the evidence of his own senses, and then, as if moved by an irresistible impulse, he stooped suddenly and gathered her close to him, while, as he gazed hungrily at the altered face, I heard him mutter, “Damn her, damn her!”
For a moment she lay passively in his arms, and then her strength came back to her. She drew herself hurriedly away ere his lips had done dishonor to her pure, white cheek, and, as he whispered, “I know all, now, Annie, all; God forgive me!” she flashed one look upon him from the depths of her beautiful eyes—a look which was a blending of reproach, entreaty, forgiveness, but above all of enduring love—and fled into the darkness. This was almost the last time I ever saw her. Whether she was too ill to leave her home, or whether, fearing another similar meeting, she purposely avoided this street, I know not; but for a long, long time I heard nothing of her.
Business grows slack in the summer. People are out of town, and my burden of letters is considerably diminished. I care little to read the uninteresting epistles, made up of almost nothing, which are sent from the stay at-homes to their more fortunate absent friends. There is a stagnation of news in the hot season, too, which invests every item and accident with a fictitious value, and the cry of the newsboy dwells with undue stress upon events which, at another and busier season, he would deem quite unworthy of his notice. So it was that one hot day in August these peripatetic little venders made the air vibrate with one oft-repeated and almost unintelligible cry of—
“Ter—rible ax-dent-in a’n’ Albany hotel—woman ‘lopes from her home in N’York—the runaway couple meet with a ter-r-ible death in an elevator!”
I paid little heed to the cry until, as my old friend, the collector, stopped beside me, I heard him say to a man near by:
“Say, Jim, that’s a fearful thing about Florence Hardy.”
“What?” said the man thus addressed.
“Why, haven’t you heard? She ran away from Paul Benson with a man from Albany; they went to a hotel there, and going up in the elevator the thing gave way, and they fell from the fourth story. Fearful thing! I used to like the girl pretty well myself, at one time, but I guess she led poor Benson a life.” And the two men moved away together, leaving me horror-struck at this new event in the little drama to which I had been a sort of god-father.
Often after this I saw Paul Benson. I think he must have moved into my neighborhood, for he frequently stopped and put a letter into my mouth, addressed, evidently, to his parents, in a distant New England town, and, as I read these honest, manly epistles, I felt convinced that the writer was worthy of the love which Annie Chase had bestowed upon him. I noticed every day an increasing firmness in his tread and a more upright, noble carriage of the head and shoulders, as if a weight had been lifted therefrom. But of Annie Chase never a glimpse or a word. I could not tell whether she was living still or whether the gentle spirit had fled from too great a burden of suffering.
At last came round the 13th of February again; and again the aproaching fête was made evident to me by the superabundant accumulation of mail-matter in my interior. The eve of St. Valentine was this year quite different to that of the past. No wind howled dismally amid the bare branches; no fierce, cold blasts lay in wait about the corners to chill and buffet the wayfarer; to-night all was still and quiet, so still that every footstep was audible even at a great distance. I was becoming quite a connoisseur in footsteps and could foretell the approach of my regular contributors before they came into my range of vision. Suddenly I heard a firm, manly tread that sounded very familiar. I had guessed aright, for it was Paul Benson, indeed, who came swiftly onward in the silent night. He stopped beside me and searched for a minute in his pocket, taking therefrom a white something which he held a moment in his hands, then, glancing steadily around, he lifted it slowly to his lips and consigned it to my care. Eagerly I scanned the name it bore: “Miss Annie Chase.” She was then alive! I glanced through the paper and what did I behold! The identical valentine with its bunch of violets—faded and scentless now—and the tender little sentiment beneath which had been supplemented by an addition in a firm, masculine hand:
I thought to pluck a violet sweet,
But ere my tender clasp
Had seized the prize, it palsied grew
From the poisonous sting of an asp.
Again I’d pluck a violet sweet,
Say, has that love of thine,
Like these, thy emblems, faded quite?
Or, am I still thy valentine?
Now all this happened more than two years ago, and there has never come a reply to that valentine, neither have there been any more letters deposited within me from which I could learn the sequel of this little romance; but a week ago I saw coming slowly up the street two familiar figures, one of which pushed before it a well-blanketed perambulator in which a tiny morsel of humanity was sleeping. They were the figures of a man and woman; the former I easily recognized, but the face of the latter was so radiant and happy that in its new and unfamiliar expression I had some difficulty in tracing the sad and gentle beauty of Annie Chase.
Godey’s Lady’s Book: February 1889
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Ah, that fatal fascinator: “A man from Albany…” We could not help but read the tell-tale adjectives that presaged the fall of that “full-blown peony.” “florid,” “coarse, “vulgar.” And, frankly, anything might be expected of one who used her feminine wiles to lure an innocent postman from the Path of Duty.
But, really, Mrs Daffodil (who has read entirely too many Valentine’s pot-boilers) has lost all patience with young men who are so lacking in confidence (despite their “firm, manly” ways) that they not only throw over the girl of their heart after ostensibly receiving a rude Valentine from said Beloved, but do not even have the nerve to inquire politely if there had been some mistake at the central sorting office. Instead, they rush off and marry someone entirely unsuitable, furnishing plot tension, and delaying the happy ending (if happy ending there is) for several pages. Paul Benson was fortunate that his Annie did not go into a Fatal Decline on hearing the news of his marriage. Personally, Mrs Daffodil would have liked to have seen her cut him in the street for his foolishness. But that would have been a waste of a florid villainess and the chatty, sentient, and sentimental post-box.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.