Lost in the Post

AUSTIN PHILIPS July 1 1909

Lost in the Post

AUSTIN PHILIPS July 1 1909

Lost in the Post

AUSTIN PHILIPS

From The Strand Magazine.

IT was not the knowledge that the letter was addressed to his wife which first pulled Ainslie up. It was the sudden familiarity of his own name, jumping in upon thousands of others he had seen that night. At first, indeed, his brain, fogged by the long, mechanical hours of sorting, failed to help him. He stood, staring idly and vaguely, balancing the envelope in his hand.

Round him the big sorting office, with its hundred electric lights, blazed like a vast, illuminated temple of speed. Above the hoarse cries of the superintendents, above the creak and whistle and groan of trollies, above the incessant tramp and tread of postmen laden with khaki bags, the heavy thud—thud of date-stamps hammered the King’s head. The whole building shook ; the noise thrilled along the iron girders of the roof ; the glass skylights caught and flung it back to the floor. And the air reeked with the fumes of boiling wax.

To Ainslie, standing midway down a row of sorters at the long, threedecked table in the centre of the room, the full significance of what he saw did not come for a whole minute. Then, as the truth glimpsed on to him and grew to certainty, his heart stopped dead, to leap forward again at express speed. And for a moment his eyes saw red—nothing but red. A furious, insane jealousy had overmastered him.

He turned the letter over and over in his fingers. It bore an Australian stamp. The postmark was Melbourne. The address was written in a round,

upright hand. And Ainslie knew that the sender was Dicky Soames, his wife’s cousin, whom he hated and feared more than any man in the world. Six months back, coming down to find the postman at his door, he had been given just such another letter, That he had thrown savagely into the fire, then and there, stamping it down with his heel.

No man ever had less real cause for jealousy than Ainslie. His wife was as frank as the day, a splendid housekeeper, a magnificent mother to the children. But Ainslie, hard-working, efficient, zealous, and anxious to succeed, had a positive kink. He was almost a monomaniac. He could not bring himself to believe that, though he had been the successful suitor for Adela Morton’s hand, she had not, in her heart of hearts, a strong, unquenched affection for the ne'er-doweel cousin who had courted her so long. The fact that Dicky Soames had, years back, gone out to join his -—and Adela’s—uncle at the Melbourne store made no difference to his belief. Suspicion slumbered in him always, growing alive and quick whenever the other’s name was mentioned or some chance speech struck a too readily responsive chord in his jealous brain. It was his fixed belief that some day his rival would return and take Adela from him. And, though he loved her passionately, not all the arguments of doctor and saint would have coaxed him into trust.

As he stood at the sorting-table, one thought alone took full shape and domination over the thousand others

that flashed past him. He must have the letter—must have it at all costs. And since, in the morning, jyhen the postman came to his house, he would he hack at the office again, he must have it now.

Instinctively the hand that held the letter went towards the right-hand pocket of his coat. Then it stopped midway. Ainslie, caught by a sudden fear, had glanced quickly round. It was well for him that lie did so, for behind him stood one of the superintendents, watching and alert. His eyes, full of sudden suspicion, met Ainslie’s, Ainslie, his sense of selfpreservation overcoming for the moment his jealousy, swung round, put the letter on its appointed heap, and began to sort for dear life.

Once or twice, during lulls in the work, more often when pressure was at its height, he glanced furtively behind him to see whether he was still being watched. The superintendent stayed—and stared. If, now and then, he moved away, it was only to go behind a pillar or to the corner of a sorting table, to some spot from which he could watch unseen. It was evident that he had seen Ainshe's gesture and believed the worst.

Quite soon Ainslie’s chance was gone. The heaps of sorted stuff before him grew higher; the sub-sorters came to clear them away—to take some to the dispatching boards, some over to the postmen’s tables at the far end of the room. These last, and with them the letter for Ainslie’s wife, would lie there till morning, when they—and it—would be taken out for delivery a few minites before Ainslie came back to work again. At ten o’clock the office would close ; the doors would be locked and to come at what Dicky Soames had written would be sheer impossibility. Unless—

Unless? The thought came to him as an inspiration. Could he get into the office after it was closed? Was is possible without the key? Then, smiling as lie worked, he remembered. Once a colleague, having left some valuables in his working coat,

had got in through the skylights of the long, low roof. What had been done once could be done again. He would be able to get the ^ letter after all. And then? Why, he would confront his wife with the clear evidence of the disloyalty of which he had so long suspected her !

He did not mind about the superintendent now. He had something better to think of. He worked feverishly at the tables, doing two men’s work, anxious only to kill time. At length the last letter was sorted. The boards were cleaned. With a dozen others Ainslie went over to help the dispatching clerks tie up, to pull the chock-affilock bags across to the zinccovered tables where the porters stood, seals in hand, before the pots of boiling wax. Then, after he had gone down into the retiring-room and changed his coat, he signed the big atendance book and went out into the street—to watch.

Hidden in an entry’s sheltering darkness, Ainslie waited. He heard the Town Hall clock boom out ten times, he watched the sorters leave in groups of threes and fours, he saw the blaze of the electric lights die down into darkness. He heard, too, the rattle of the keys as the superintendent made fast the doors. After that he waited still. It was half-past ten before he ventured to leave his hiding-place.

He hurried to the back of the building. The gates of the big yard were easy to climb and he was soon over them ; but, as he knew must be the case, the swing doors of the sortingoffice were locked from within. The skylight was the only possible entrance.

Close by the doors of the sortingoffice a tall telegraph pole ran up. overtopping the glass roof that was Ainslie’s aim. All the wires in the office were hitched to this : it had. every eighteen inches, branching metal footholds screwed into it for the electricians to ascend. Ainslie found a portable dustbin, put it before the pole, jumped up, caught at

the lowest foothold, pulled himself up, and began to climb. Soon he was level with the roof. He stepped from the pole on to the wooden catwalks in a dip between the skylights, walked along a little way, and then drew his body across the glass surface. He raised a skylight that was only ajar, fixed it wide, put his feet through, and swung by one hand, feeling for a perpendicular girder with the other. He found it, caught it, set his feet on a horizontal one beneath, lowered himself, and stood on the top deck of a sorting-table. Thence he jumped to the floor.

He struck a match, and found himself close to the postmen’s tables. Knowing exactly on which the letter would be, he hurried across and switched on the light. He took a bundle of letters in his left hand, and slipped each of them deftly into his right, one by one. Quite soon he came on what he sought. And then, for the second time that night, he stood staring at the envelope.

Suddenly, in the far part of the office, something seemed to creak. It was only the echo of his own involuntary movement and cry, but he couldn’t know that. There in the full light he stood, staring into the surrounding darkness, his hair stiffening, his breath held, and his whole being a bundle of nerves. He took a step forward. “Who’s there?” he whispered, fiercely. The roof and the distance echoed back a blurred answer. Ainslie, beside himself with fear, felt that he must get rid of what he held at any cost. Before him an unextinguished fire smouldered, glowing and red. Into it he flung Dicky Soames’s letter. The paper took the flame with slow sureness, crinkled, charred, and became merged in the coals. Ainslie faced the darkness, once more. “Who’s there?” he called, more loudly, because of his growing fear. Again the roof and the distance echoed back their answer. But this time they echoed clearly, and he knew that his fears had1 been vain. He began to curse himself for a fool

and for having destroyed the evidence he had risked his career to get. And in a blind rage of disappointment and despair he climbed out of the building oil to the roof, over the wooden catwalks, down the telegraph pole, and into the yard again. Then, tipfoot on the slanting beam that supported one of them, and jumped over into the by-street on the other side. But as his feet met the ground he felt a strong arm crook within his own.

Ainslie struggled fiercely, but in vain. The grip was too strong for him. In desperation lie drew back to strike with all his force. The single flickering lamp outside the double doors lit up his captor’s face. Ainslie went utterly limp.

“Great heavens, it’s the postmaster !” he cried. He was right. He had chosen for his folly one of the rare nights on which his chief made a surprise visit to the building.

The other stared at the sound of Ainslie’s voice. “Why, it’s Ainslie !” he brought out.

“Yes, sir, it’s me,” said Ainslie, feebly.

“This is very serious, Ainslie,” said the postmaster. “What’s your explanation?”

If Ainslie had told the whole truth, the chief, who was a humane person, would have understood and forgiven. But shame kept him partly silent.

“I went in for a letter,” he stammered.

The postmaster frowned.

“You went in for a letter?” he repeated. “A letter at this time of night ?”

“Yes, sir,” said Ainslie. “It was an important letter, and I wanted it at once.”

The chief looked incredulous. “How did you get in?” he demanded.

Ainslie told him. The other shook his bead. “If I were a police officer,” he said, “I should take you into custody right away ; but, as I’m only a postmaster, I sha’n’t do that. I shall suspend you from duty for suspicious

conduct. You won't come back till you hear further. Do you understand ?”

Ainslie stood speechless. Should he —could he make a clean breast of it ? Almost he screwed up his courage, then failed. It was impossible. I lis shame was too great.

“Very good, sir,” he said; yet, before he turned away, he asked, pleadingly:

“Is there any chance that I shall be taken back, sir?”

The chief faced him, stern and fierce. “I can hold out no hope whatever !” he answered, briefly.

And Ainslie—broken for life— slunk up the by-street, out into the main road, home. If there was no hope then, what would there be when to-morrow the postmaster had heard the superintendent’s tale?

Almost before he came into - the room where bis wife was sitting up for him she knew that something terrible had happened. The prolonged strain showed in his face, his walk was that of an old man, all his vitality seemed gone.

“What is it, dear?” she asked, gravely. “Tell me everything."

He told her—what he had told the postmaster. He mistrusted her still ; but, most of all, he was ashamed. She heard him to the end.

“What was the letter you went back for?” she said.

Ainslie sat palsied and irresolute. Then he stammered out the lie that he had thought of on his miserable way home.

“It was about that old tail-boys !” he stammered. “I—I was in a hurry. I had an offer for it, and I wanted to know if Greaves would sell it me, so that I could let the gentleman know.”

Mrs. Ainslie, looking at him with her grave grey eyes, saw that he lied. But she said nothing. It was her way.

“There’s no hope of your being kept on?” she hazarded.

Ainslie shook his head.

“None Whatever,” he said. “Can

you wonder? Could anything look more black against a man ?” Then, after a long silence, he burst out, “My God ! The children ! What are we to do?”

His wife got up and came across to him. She loved him. That is why, knowing that, though he was no thief, he had lied to her, she kissed him tenderly.

“There’s no need to despair,” she said. “It may be a blessing. You’ve a good trade at your fingers’ ends that you learned before ever you thought of the Post Office. And you know more about old furniture than any man in Belboro !”

“You mean?” Ainslie wondered.

His wife balanced herself on the arm of his chair.

“I mean,” she said, “that there’s no antique business in the town worth calling one. There’s work for a cabinet-maker now that there wasn’t a dozen years ago. And with Americans in and out of the cathedral, as they are, a shop near the Close might make us a fortune in a few years.”

“But.” objected Ainslie, taking heart all the same, “but a shop wants capital, and we’ve none. And where are we going to get the old stuff to stock it with?”

Mrs. Ainslie slipped an arm round his neck, and waved her free hand round the room at her treasures.

“My dear,” she said, proudly, “aren’t there all the beautiful things we’ve been clever enough to get together? We’ve got them for next to nothing—we’ll get others, too. We’ll make this old house a shop like the antique house at Murcester and live among the things we sell. I’ll see to customers and you shall go round the county on a bicycle picking things up. Oh, we’ll make it a success! We’ll make it a success ! And you won’t be away from me so much as you’ve been at your Post Office work ! That will help me to do without and to stand up against the struggle at first !”

The magnificence of her courage killed the last spark of jealousy in Ainslie’s heart. The shock, hammer-

ing out the kink, had made him into a sane man. For perhaps the first time in his life he took her into his arms feeling that she belonged to him heart and soul.

“Oh, my dear, my dear!” he cried, really happy at last. “Ell show you what I can do. We'll pull through together, in spite of everything. But,

first of all, I must tell yen-” Then,

weakening, he broke off and hid his face in his hands. “Oh, I can’t, I can’t!” he cried.

Once more his wife, who was a thousand times too good for him, kissed him tenderly on the lips.

“Tell me nothing, dear,” she said, “except that you love me with all your heart.”

And Ainslie, saying so again and again, meant what he said.

There was, as the postmaster had told Ainslie, no hope of his going back to the Post Office. After a month of suspension the long-expected letter of dismissal came. He showed it to his wife in silence. She took the typewritten sheet of foolscap and put it in the fire. “That belongs to the past!” she said. “The present and the future belong to us!”

But for all her grit and Ainslie’s grim determination to atone and succeed, the struggle was fierce and keen —the battle often against them. Cottage oak and modest brass afford a ready sale. But their profits are infinitesimal compared with those on the more aristocratic woodwork which Ainslie could not afford to buy. Sometimes, but seldom, he was able to acquire a piece of Sheraton for an old song, to make good its damages, and sell it at a handsome profit. But these were rare chances that seldom came his way. Often at sales, for want of capital, he had to forego the purchase of some rare piece for which neatly restored, he could have got a hundred per cent, on his outlay. At times, for all his wife’s encouragement and pluck, his heart failed him. He was just a living—a bare living —and no more. But he plugged on still, and the certainty that his wife

loved him had made him another man. Slowly, very slowly, things improved. Gradually he got together a connection. He began to gain a reputation for fair dealing and good work.

One afternoon, when he came 'back from a long hunt in the country for a gate-legged table that a client had pressed him to discover, he found his wife giving tea to a plump, roundfaced, fair-haired man, who greeted him as an old acquaintance.

“Good Lord, it’s Dicky Soames !” cried Ainslie. “How long have you been here?”

“Two hours!” said the other. He shook hands corially, yet he looked at Ainslie as if he despised him.

Ainslie smiled back, with never a trace of jealousy in his heart.

“I hope Adela has kept you well entertained,” he said.

Dicky Soames laughed. “Well, if it comes to that,” he answered, “it’s I who’ve been doing the talking. You see, I had some business matters tc discuss with Aaela.”

Mrs. Ainslie looked at her husband. “Uncle Tom’s dead/’ she explained, “and Dicky has come into the. money. How much is it, Dicky?”

“Thirty thousand pounds!” said Dicky Soames, not without pride.

Ainslie shook his hand warmly “By Jove! I congratulate you,” he exclaimed. “You’re in luck. Isn’t he, Adela?”

Mrs. Ainslie turned to Dicky.

“Tell Arthur the rest,” she said, quietly.

Dicky, for some reason or other, seemed uncomfortable. He cleared his throat several times before he blurted out: “He left Adela five hundred.” His restless eyes searched Ainslie’s a second, then fell again.

Ainslie glanced at his wife. She nodded.

“How splendid!” he said. “You don’t know what it means to us, Dicky!”

But the visitor looked more uncomfortable than ever. Ainslie noticed it at last, and his face mirrored

his surprise. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Well, you see,” stammered the other, awkwardly, “the old chap left something over sixty thousand, and he meant Adela to have half. But after he got paralyzed he began to get funny. He was mortally offended because Adela never answered two letters I wrote to her for him. Then he altered his will and left her share to hospitals and other things. I did all I could to persuade him that she’d never got his letters, but he wouldn’t have it. Nothing would move the old chap when he’d once got a thing into his head.”

He paused, broke off. and looked searchingly at Ainslie. But Ainslie’s eyes were on his wife’s. His face was as white as paper, his lips chattering and blue. Dicky Soames’s suspicions were confirmed. And because he disliked Ainslie for many things, but

most because he believed him to have done Adela out of the money, he could not resist loosing one Parthian shot.

“It’s strange about those two letters,” he reflected aloud. “I wonder —I’ve often wondered what became of them !”

Mrs. Ainslie got up and came across to her husband’s side.

“Only one thing could have become of them !” she said, and she faced Dicky Soames with the light of battle in her eyes.

Dicky stared. “What was that ?” he demanded, amazed at her manner.

“They were lost in the post !” answered Mrs. Ainslie.

And, still facing her visitor, she slipped her fingers into her husband’s ice-cold hand. Ainslie knew then that she knew everything. Yet he was, if that were possible, more sure of her still.