The morning was as dark and cold as city snow could make it--a dingy whirl at the window; a smoky gust through the fireplace; a shadow black as a bear's cave under the table. Nothing in all the cavernous room, loomed really warm or familiar except a glass of stale water, and a vapid, half-eaten grape-fruit.
Packed into his pudgy pillows like a fragile piece of china instead of a human being Carl Stanton lay and cursed the brutal Northern winter.
Between his sturdy, restive shoulders the rheumatism snarled and clawed like some utterly frenzied animal trying to gnaw-gnaw-gnaw its way out. Along the tortured hollow of his back a red-hot plaster fumed and mulled and sucked at the pain like a hideously poisoned fang trying to gnaw-gnaw-gnaw its way in. Worse than this; every four or five minutes an agony as miserably comic as a crashing blow on one's crazy bone went jarring and shuddering through his whole abnormally vibrant system.
In Stanton's swollen fingers Cornelia's large, crisp letter rustled not softly like a lady's skirts but bleakly as an ice-storm in December woods.
Cornelia's whole angular handwriting, in fact, was not at all unlike a thicket of twigs stripped from root to branch of every possible softening leaf.
"DEAR CARL" crackled the letter, "In spite of your unpleasant tantrum yesterday, because I would not kiss you good-by in the presence of my mother, I am good-natured enough you see to write you a good-by letter after all. But I certainly will not promise to write you daily, so kindly do not tease me any more about it. In the first place, you understand that I greatly dislike letter-writing. In the second place you know Jacksonville quite as well as I do, so there is no use whatsoever in wasting either my time or yours in purely geographical descriptions. And in the third place, you ought to be bright enough to comprehend by this time just what I think about 'love-letters' anyway. I have told you once that I love you, and that ought to be enough. People like myself do not change. I may not talk quite as much as other people, but when I once say a thing I mean it! You will never have cause, I assure you, to worry about my fidelity.
"I will honestly try to write you every Sunday these next six weeks, but I am not willing to literally promise even that. Mother indeed thinks that we ought not to write very much at all until our engagement is formally announced.
"Trusting that your rheumatism is very much better this morning, I am
"P. S. Apropos of your sentimental passion for letters, I enclose a ridiculous circular which was handed to me yesterday at the Woman's Exchange. You had better investigate it. It seems to be rather your kind."
As the letter fluttered out of his hand Stanton closed his eyes with a twitch of physical suffering. Then he picked up the letter again and scrutinized it very carefully from the severe silver monogram to the huge gothic signature, but he could not find one single thing that he was looking for;--not a nourishing paragraph; not a stimulating sentence; not even so much as one small sweet-flavored word that was worth filching out of the prosy text to tuck away in the pockets of his mind for his memory to munch on in its hungry hours. Now everybody who knows anything at all knows perfectly well that even a business letter does not deserve the paper which it is written on unless it contains at least one significant phrase that is worth waking up in the night to remember and think about. And as to the Lover who does not write significant phrases--Heaven help the young mate who finds himself thus mismated to so spiritually commonplace a nature! Baffled, perplexed, strangely uneasy, Stanton lay and studied the barren page before him. Then suddenly his poor heart puckered up like a persimmon with the ghastly, grim shock which a man experiences when he realizes for the first time that the woman whom he loves is not shy, but--_stingy_.
With snow and gloom and pain and loneliness the rest of the day dragged by. Hour after hour, helpless, hopeless, utterly impotent as though Time itself were bleeding to death, the minutes bubbled and dripped from the old wooden clock. By noon the room was as murky as dish-water, and Stanton lay and fretted in the messy, sudsy snow-light like a forgotten knife or spoon until the janitor wandered casually in about three o'clock and wrung a piercing little wisp of flame out of the electric-light bulb over the sick man's head, and raised him clumsily out of his soggy pillows and fed him indolently with a sad, thin soup. Worst of all, four times in the dreadful interim between breakfast and supper the postman's thrilly footsteps soared up the long metallic stairway like an ecstatically towering high-note, only to flat off discordantly at Stanton's door without even so much as a one-cent advertisement issuing from the letter-slide.--And there would be thirty or forty more days just like this the doctor had assured him; and Cornelia had said that--perhaps, if she felt like it--she would write--six--times.
Then Night came down like the feathery soot of a smoky lamp, and smutted first the bedquilt, then the hearth-rug, then the window-seat, and then at last the great, stormy, faraway outside world. But sleep did not come. Oh, no! Nothing new came at all except that particularly wretched, itching type of insomnia which seems to rip away from one's body the whole kind, protecting skin and expose all the raw, ticklish fretwork of nerves to the mercy of a gritty blanket or a wrinkled sheet. Pain came too, in its most brutally high night-tide; and sweat, like the smother of furs in summer; and thirst like the scrape of hot sand-paper; and chill like the clammy horror of raw fish. Then, just as the mawkish cold, gray dawn came nosing over the house-tops, and the poor fellow's mind had reached the point where the slam of a window or the ripping creak of a floorboard would have shattered his brittle nerves into a thousand cursing tortures--then that teasing, tantalizing little friend of all rheumatic invalids--the Morning Nap--came swooping down upon him like a sponge and wiped out of his face every single bit of the sharp, precious evidence of pain which he had been accumulating so laboriously all night long to present to the Doctor as an incontestable argument in favor of an opiate.
Whiter than his rumpled bed, but freshened and brightened and deceptively free from pain, he woke at last to find the pleasant yellow sunshine mottling his dingy carpet like a tortoise-shell cat. Instinctively with his first yawny return to consciousness he reached back under his pillow for Cornelia's letter.
Out of the stiff envelope fluttered instead the tiny circular to which Cornelia had referred so scathingly.
It was a dainty bit of gray Japanese tissue with the crimson-inked text glowing gaily across it. Something in the whole color scheme and the riotously quirky typography suggested at once the audaciously original work of some young art student who was fairly splashing her way along the road to financial independence, if not to fame. And this is what the little circular said, flushing redder and redder and redder with each ingenuous statement:
THE SERIAL-LETTER COMPANY.
Comfort and entertainment Furnished for Invalids, Travelers, and all Lonely People.
Reliable as your Daily Paper. Fanciful as your Favorite Story Magazine. Personal as a Message from your Best Friend. Offering all the Satisfaction of _receiving_ Letters with no Possible Obligation or even Opportunity of Answering Them.
Letters from a Japanese Fairy. (Especially acceptable
Bi-weekly. to a Sick Child. Fragrant
with Incense and
Sandal Wood. Vivid
with purple and orange
and scarlet. Lavishly
interspersed with the
most adorable Japanese
toys that you ever saw
in your life.)
Letters from a little Son. (Very sturdy. Very
Weekly. spunky. Slightly profane.)
Letters from a Little Daughter. (Quaint. Old-Fashioned.
Weekly. Daintily Dreamy.
Mostly about Dolls.)
Letters from a Banda-Sea Pirate. (Luxuriantly tropical.
Monthly. Salter than the Sea.
Sharper than Coral.
Letters from a Gray-Plush Squirrel. (Sure to please Nature
Irregular. Lovers of Either
Sex. Pungent with
wild. Apt to be just a
little bit messy perhaps
with roots and leaves
Letters from Your Favorite (Biographically consistent.
Historical Character. Historically reasonable.
Fortnightly. Most vivaciously
human. Really unique.)
Love Letters. (Three grades: Shy.
Daily. Medium. Very Intense.)
In ordering letters kindly state approximate age, prevalent tastes,--and in case of invalidism, the presumable severity of illness. For price list, etc., refer to opposite page. Address all communications to Serial Letter Co. Box, etc., etc.
As Stanton finished reading the last solemn business detail he crumpled up the circular into a little gray wad, and pressed his blond head back into the pillows and grinned and grinned.
"Good enough!" he chuckled. "If Cornelia won't write to me there seem to be lots of other congenial souls who will--cannibals and rodents and kiddies. All the same--" he ruminated suddenly: "All the same I'll wager that there's an awfully decent little brain working away behind all that red ink and nonsense."
Still grinning he conjured up the vision of some grim-faced spinster-subscriber in a desolate country town starting out at last for the first time in her life, with real, cheery self-importance, rain or shine, to join the laughing, jostling, deliriously human Saturday night crowd at the village post-office--herself the only person whose expected letter never failed to come! From Squirrel or Pirate or Hopping Hottentot--what did it matter to her? Just the envelope alone was worth the price of the subscription. How the pink-cheeked high school girls elbowed each other to get a peep at the post-mark! How the--. Better still, perhaps some hopelessly unpopular man in a dingy city office would go running up the last steps just a little, wee bit faster--say the second and fourth Mondays in the month--because of even a bought, made-up letter from Mary Queen of Scots that he knew absolutely without slip or blunder would be waiting there for him on his dusty, ink-stained desk among all the litter of bills and invoices concerning--shoe leather. Whether 'Mary Queen of Scots' prattled pertly of ancient English politics, or whimpered piteously about dull-colored modern fashions--what did it matter so long as the letter came, and smelled of faded fleur-de-lis--or of Darnley's tobacco smoke? Altogether pleased by the vividness of both these pictures Stanton turned quite amiably to his breakfast and gulped down a lukewarm bowl of milk without half his usual complaint.
[Illustration: "Good enough!" he chuckled]
It was almost noon before his troubles commenced again. Then like a raging hot tide, the pain began in the soft, fleshy soles of his feet and mounted up inch by inch through the calves of his legs, through his aching thighs, through his tortured back, through his cringing neck, till the whole reeking misery seemed to foam and froth in his brain in an utter frenzy of furious resentment. Again the day dragged by with maddening monotony and loneliness. Again the clock mocked him, and the postman shirked him, and the janitor forgot him. Again the big, black night came crowding down and stung him and smothered him into a countless number of new torments.
Again the treacherous Morning Nap wiped out all traces of the pain and left the doctor still mercilessly obdurate on the subject of an opiate.
And Cornelia did not write.
Not till the fifth day did a brief little Southern note arrive informing him of the ordinary vital truths concerning a comfortable journey, and expressing a chaste hope that he would not forget her. Not even surprise, not even curiosity, tempted Stanton to wade twice through the fashionable, angular handwriting. Dully impersonal, bleak as the shadow of a brown leaf across a block of gray granite, plainly--unforgivably--written with ink and ink only, the stupid, loveless page slipped through his fingers to the floor.
After the long waiting and the fretful impatience of the past few days there were only two plausible ways in which to treat such a letter. One way was with anger. One way was with amusement. With conscientious effort Stanton finally summoned a real smile to his lips.
Stretching out perilously from his snug bed he gathered the waste-basket into his arms and commenced to dig in it like a sportive terrier. After a messy minute or two he successfully excavated the crumpled little gray tissue circular and smoothed it out carefully on his humped-up knees. The expression in his eyes all the time was quite a curious mixture of mischief and malice and rheumatism.
"After all" he reasoned, out of one corner of his mouth, "After all, perhaps I have misjudged Cornelia. Maybe it's only that she really doesn't know just what a love-letter OUGHT to be like."
Then with a slobbering fountain-pen and a few exclamations he proceeded to write out a rather large check and a very small note.
"TO THE SERIAL-LETTER CO." he addressed himself brazenly. "For the enclosed check--which you will notice doubles the amount of your advertised price--kindly enter my name for a six weeks' special 'edition de luxe' subscription to one of your love-letter serials. (Any old ardor that comes most convenient) Approximate age of victim: 32. Business status: rubber broker. Prevalent tastes: To be able to sit up and eat and drink and smoke and go to the office the way other fellows do. Nature of illness: The meanest kind of rheumatism. Kindly deliver said letters as early and often as possible!
"Very truly yours, etc."
Sorrowfully then for a moment he studied the depleted balance in his check-book. "Of course" he argued, not unguiltily, "Of course that check was just the amount that I was planning to spend on a turquoise-studded belt for Cornelia's birthday; but if Cornelia's brains really need more adorning than does her body--if this special investment, in fact, will mean more to both of us in the long run than a dozen turquoise belts--."
Big and bland and blond and beautiful, Cornelia's physical personality loomed up suddenly in his memory--so big, in fact, so bland, so blond, so splendidly beautiful, that he realized abruptly with a strange little tucked feeling in his heart that the question of Cornelia's "brains" had never yet occurred to him. Pushing the thought impatiently aside he sank back luxuriantly again into his pillows, and grinned without any perceptible effort at all as he planned adroitly how he would paste the Serial Love Letters one by one into the gaudiest looking scrap-book that he could find and present it to Cornelia on her birthday as a text-book for the "newly engaged" girl. And he hoped and prayed with all his heart that every individual letter would be printed with crimson ink on a violet-scented page and would fairly reek from date to signature with all the joyous, ecstatic silliness that graces either an old-fashioned novel or a modern breach-of-promise suit.
So, quite worn out at last with all this unwonted excitement, he drowsed off to sleep for as long as ten minutes and dreamed that he was a--bigamist.
The next day and the next night were stale and mean and musty with a drizzling winter rain. But the following morning crashed inconsiderately into the world's limp face like a snowball spiked with icicles. Gasping for breath and crunching for foothold the sidewalk people breasted the gritty cold. Puckered with chills and goose-flesh, the fireside people huddled and sneezed around their respective hearths. Shivering like the ague between his cotton-flannel blankets, Stanton's courage fairly raced the mercury in its downward course. By noon his teeth were chattering like a mouthful of cracked ice. By night the sob in his thirsty throat was like a lump of salt and snow. But nothing outdoors or in, from morning till night, was half as wretchedly cold and clammy as the rapidly congealing hot-water bottle that slopped and gurgled between his aching shoulders.
It was just after supper when a messenger boy blurted in from the frigid hall with a great gust of cold and a long pasteboard box and a letter.
Frowning with perplexity Stanton's clumsy fingers finally dislodged from the box a big, soft blanket-wrapper with an astonishingly strange, blurry pattern of green and red against a somber background of rusty black. With increasing amazement he picked up the accompanying letter and scanned it hastily.
"Dear Lad," the letter began quite intimately. But it was not signed "Cornelia". It was signed "Molly"!