LOVE LETTERS IN A JAR
LOUIS ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
THERE WAS something ominous and macabre in that early morning rap at Cecil’s door. Cecil thought, as he blinked his eyes open, that it had kinship with the knocking at the door in “Macbeth” and the bongbong in the radio thrillers when the inhuman Wu Lung hurls a fresh victim through the trapdoor to the barracudas.
However, when the door opened, it was only Cecil’s host, Toby Greg, and all Toby said was:
“I was sleeping,” remonstrated Cecil.
“Do you invite a man down to your house just so you can come around and hammer on his door at sunrise?”
“It's ten o’clock,” corrected Toby, squatting on the foot of the bed, “and my Uncle Moffit is arriving at noon,”
Cecil yawned. Uncle Moffit had no place in his cosmos. “Unfortunately,” continued Toby with that nonchalance that always, from him, presaged something grave, “I won’t be on hand. The rest of the family are away and ...” Cecil’s thoughts harked back to that psychological spasm that had come to him when Toby first knocked at his door.
“I’m afraid—” he began, reaching out for his spectacles on the bedside table.
“So, as my guest, Cecil, it’s up to you to drive down to Brompton station and gather up Uncle Moffit. Thanks, old chap.”
“But, look here, Toby—”
“A simple request, Cecil,” said Toby, rising and looking stern. “The manly thing is to perform it, not grudgingly and unwillingly, but with alacrity and—and—”
“But it’s your place to do it.”
“I have an appointment.”
“With some girl?”
“With my doctor.”
“I’ll bet he’s a girl.”
Well, now . , . ” Toby grinned. “Do you know, Cecil, you are a very discerning youth. A bit slow on the uptake, though. What you need is a love affair. You need to forget yourself, lose yourself, drown vourself in a woman’s beauty—”
Bosh ! ’ said Cecil, flushing. “How will I know your Uncle Moffit?”
Very easily,” said Toby. “He’s an archaeologist. You can’t miss him.”
Toby got out before the look of alarm on Cecil’s face could be translated into words. By the time Cecil had rolled out of bed, Toby was rolling down the drive in his bright blue roadster, off for his appointment with the “doctor,” a set of golf sticks poking their fiat heads out of the rumble seat.
“Oh. well,” mused Cecil, elbows on the windowsill. “It's only a little thing. I’ll meet the old gentleman ... So Toby thinks I need a love affair.”
It may have been the robins or the finches or even the rooks in the old elm trees around Toby Greg’s house, or maybe the bright flowers and the green lawns or the distant rivers or the cows grazing in the pastures in yonder farmlands; anyway, Cecil Morehouse sighed and uttered the single word;
HE THOUGHT of Luella Baker. He had seen her acting in a play that the girls of Wyngate School had brought to town when he was on vacation from college. Cecil, seeing her, had loved her. He could see her now—yellowish hair and big blue eyes, pert nose and sweet mouth. Cecil shook his head like a man emerging from a dream or a lake. He had not seen Luella again. Perhaps he would never see her. He picked a leaf from the rambling woodbine by the window and bit it and threw it away. Luella. He had been afraid—yes, shyly afraid—to seek another meeting. Instead, in his queer way, he had written her poetry and letters and signed them “Ariel.” He smiled fondly, thinking of those poems and letters. She must have loved them; any girl would. She must have treasured them. Oh, well, perhaps it
was never to he. But he had not forgotten.
At noon, Cecil drove down to Brompton s tation to meet Uncle Moffit. He had no misgivings. It is an odd but well-known fact that men don’t have misgivings, even when they’re about to walk into an open manhole or leap off a moving trolley into a mud puddle.
Very natty in grey flannels, his light hair smoothly parted and a cheery smile on his face, Cecil prepared to meet the twelve-thirty train and greet Toby’s Uncle Moffit. He wouldn't mistake him, Toby had said.
Up and down the platform Cecil strolled, humming a bit of a tune. Suddenly the humming ceased, his legs turned to wood, then to water, and his eyes became fixed. A wraith? A vision conjured up by his dreams of the morning? No, it was she, living and lovely—Luella Baker!
She had come out of the waiting room. She was looking up the road with an impatient little frown. She turned and saw him. it seemed, for the first time.
He saw her cheeks color under their tan, saw a quick movement of her hands, saw—yes, it was—recognition in those eyes that he had never forgotten. How could she know who he was when only once, one evening in the dim past, he had sat before the footlights and adored her?
Yet now she smiled. Cecil moved, without knowing how, close to her. Words were so hard to find.
She looked up at him.
“That night I . . . ?”
“Yes, that night you ...”
“But—but you were on the stage. How could you . . . ?”
“Oh, I saw you once before. And then, at the play, sitting in the front row.”
"And you—you remember me!”
“It would seem so. And you have — ?”
The train roared in. drowning her words.
“Where are you for?” demanded Cecil.
“I’m waiting for the bus.”
“If you'll wait until 1 pick up a gentleman and come back, I’ll drive you.”
She scrutinized him a little uncertainly as though, after all, she was not quite sure of his identity, and nodded
assent. He left her and went hurriedly to seek Uncle Moffit. Cecil’s heart sang. She had remembered him, thought of him. perhaps dreamed of meeting him again. How could life be so good, so glorious .
A DOZEN BAGS, boxes, tripods and umbrellas tumbled down the steps with the porter, and after them came something that looked like the spirit of the Old Westwide-brimmed hat, long grey hair and grey goatee, a frock coat, plaid vest and trousers, and, dangling from his neck by a long black cord, one of those funny little black affairs that deaf people carry. Cecil’s mouth opened, then he clamped it shut and darted forward.
“Ha! Tobias Greg, my boy, I’m glad to see you.” Uncle Moffits voice was first cousin to a foghorn. Hurrying people stopped to look; baggagemen and cab drivers were stilled. ‘Tm very glad to see you, young Toby. It’s—let me see—bless me, yes it's fifteen years since I set eyes on you. But I knew you in a minute—the Greg eyes, the Greg chin, the Greg nose.”
“I—” stammered Cecil.
"Sorry, Toby. Can’t hear a thing.
My confounded ear-phone is out of order. I’ll have it fixed presently. Now, lead on.”
Cecil tore his fascinated gaze from Uncle Moffit’s rugged face, showed the porter where to stow the impedimenta and turned—to stare full into the eyes of Luella Baker.
She was looking at him with a queer, appraising expression. He wished that Uncle Moffit had not mistaken him for Toby Greg. What a goof she must think him, tied up with this Buffalo Bill show !
“Now, Toby, my lad!” roared the deaf gentleman, giving Cecil a slap on the back that made him reel.
“I tell you I’m not ...”
What was the use? Cecil shoved Uncle Moffit into the car and started away at a clip that blew uncle’s Tom Mix hat right off his head. There was a slight delay while a small boy retrieved it, Cecil could still see Luella, standing on the station platform, watching him with that puzzled expression. Soon he would get rid of Unde Moffit and come back.
He made fast time back to Toby Greg’s house. He turned the archaeologist over to the butler and tore back to Brompton station, his heart going as fast as the motor.
” ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men,’ ” mused Cecil. Yes; Luella was waiting for him. He saw her yellow dress a mile away. Oh, but the gods were propitious ! He slid up abreast of her with a fine flourish and a scrape of tires on the gravel. He leaned over from the wheel with a look of pathetic eagerness.
“Luella, are you all set?”
She looked at him with those eyes which he had adored for so long, the lovely eyes that a few moments ago were so kind-she looked at him with a coldness that seemed to blaze.
"No!” she said. "I’m sorry I spoke to you. You’re a masher and a cad.
I loathe you.”
"Oh!” gasped Cecil. “But. Luella . . .
She turned on her heel and left him gasping.
MECHANICALLY, Cecil slipped the car into low gear and drove away, cutting neatly across the bows of an oncoming oil truck and not even hearing the burly driver say, when he leaned out, “My goodness, you should be more careful, sir.”
It was too much for Cecil. He drove on, out of town, for several miles, His bewilderment gave way to hurt, then turned to anger. What right had she to say such things to him? She was the first, the only girl, he had ever loved. What had happened in those few moments he was away from her? Maybe site didn’t want to know anyone who knew Unde Moffit. You could hardly blame her.
Cedi turned back. A mile from Brompton, he saw her getting out of a motor bus. He slowed down. Other people were getting out, too, and they were all going up a winding path to a little cottage where an auctioneer’s banner flapped in the breeze.
Cecil drew in at the side of the road, stopped, hesitated, then got out. Why not? An auction was public. He would see Luella there, be near her, perhaps find a chance to learn the reason for her extraordinary conduct.
In the hall of the cottage he met Luella face to face. She didn't say, “You !" with her lips, but her eyes said it scornfully enough. Her full lips curled, and she swirled away from him with her nose uptilted. Cecil, for the first time in his life, felt angry enough to shake a woman. He glared so hard at a big man who bumped him that the man seemed to shrink as he muttered an unusual apology.
The bidding began. Cecil saw Luella’s yellow dress across the room. What could she be doing here? She didn’t bid on anything. Cecil, to vindicate his presence, put in a bid on something, and won, much to his astonishment, a perfectly good clothes horse. He saw Luella giggle, and his face got redder.
The auctioneer, a Cockney, picked up an ugly jar, all blue and pink flowers.
“’Ere,” he said, “lydies an’ gents, is wot might be one o’ those Mink vawses you ’ears abaht so much. ’Ow much ham I offered?”
“Two dollars,” said a gentle contralto voice. Cecil stiffened, his heart leaped. Luella was bidding for the jar.
“Three,” said Cecil, stifling the quaver in his voice.
“Two from the young lydy, three from the young gennelman ’ere—for this priceless Mink vawse.”
“Four,” said the contralto voice, with a hard edge in it now.
“Five,” said Cecil, staring at the auctioneer and swallowing hard.
No one else bid. It was a grim duel that ended at fifteen dollars, with Cecil in possession. Luella’s cheeks were a deep pink, her eyes were brewing twin storms. Cecil felt uneasy. He wanted to go over and present the confounded jar to her, but he had an idea she might return it forcibly against his ear. He didn’t knowT much about women, but he’d seen actresses in the movies registering the woman outraged or some such thing. Luella ’s little mouth was set and bitter, and she held her shoulders in bellicose fashion.
Cecil lugged the jar and the clothes horse down to his car, and climbed in with them and pondered. He saw Luella waiting for the bus, standing off a little from the crowd. He got out and walked toward her. She did not move. Weakness assailed Cecil. Little drops of sweat came out on his brow. What should he say?
He didn’t get a chance to say anything.
“I don’t want to hear a w'ord from you,” Luella said very slow'ly and distinctly. “I never saw a man whom I so thoroughly loathe and despise. Just for spite, you bid Aunt Susan’s jar, that I wanted so much, away from me. Do you think you can break my heart as easily as you broke another’s? Well, you can’t!”
SHE LEFT HIM. Cecil was speechless with astonishment.
The bus came sailing up and Luella got in. Cecil returned to his car. What did she mean by all that talk about breaking hearts? Why, he had never ... A great suspicion began to dawn on him. Perhaps he could find her at the train and tell her the truth about himself and give her the jar. He didn’t want it. After all, it was a mean thing he had done. The jar had belonged to her aunt, probably she had stayed at the cottage there w'hen she was a child. He’d have an awful job squaring himself with her now.
His gaze rested on the right rear wheel. It was resting on the rim. Cecil sat on the running board, buried his face in his hands, jumped up and bumped his head on the protruding clothes horse, and said some words. By the time he had changed the tire and got back to Brompton, there was no one on the platform; the up train had pulled out ten minutes before.
“Sunk,” muttered Cecil. Then he brightened. “Maybe Toby Greg will know where I can find her. I have to find her. I must!”
Toby came out to greet him when he reached the Greg home.
“Well, well!” grinned Toby. “The Greg eyes, the Greg nose, the Greg—” “Yes,” said Cecil. “All that, but not the Greg ears—there’s no fur on mine.” “You must have looked weird,” continued Toby, unabashed. “Uncle Moffit still thinks we’re pulling a fast one on him. He got deaf when he opened an Egyptian king’s tomb and it exploded.” “He should have opened a couple of them,” said Cecil.
“Hello!” Toby had discovered the clothes horse and the jar. “Going into the mangling industry? Or the pottery business? Oh, I know—junk.”
“See here.” Cecil’s eyes held a steely glint. “Do you know a girl named Luella Baker?”
Toby’s grin vanished. He looked, Cecil thought, distinctly alarmed.
“Why, yes and no. I mean, I know who she is and know some friends of hers—or did know them. That girl I used to be so sweet on, Anne Page, is Luella’s bosom pal.”
“So!” Here was the confirmation of that great suspicion. Cecil snapped his fingers. “By gad, that’s it!”
“That’s why she called me those names. She said I was a masher and a cad, and looked at me as if I had the mange.”
“She thought I was you. Uncle Moffit told the whole station platform that I was you. Say, do you know where I can find her, Toby? Do you?”
“Look in the Milltown directory. Her father is Colonel John Baker. You can run up tomorrow if you’re so keen on meeting her again. Personally, I think any dame who called you those names because she thought you were me, would be poison to a man. But you’re your own executioner. Going to give her the clothes horse for a gift?”
“That will do,” said Cecil sternly. “But for you and your dithering relatives—”
“Ha, young man !” The rich timbre of that voice made Cecil turn pale. Uncle Moffit had come up behind them. Fortunately, thought Cecil with much relief, he couldn’t hear.
“Your dithering relatives—” continued Cecil.
“Is that so!” roared Uncle Moffit. “Well, let me tell you—”
"Better step on it, Cecil,” advised Toby. “Uncle Moffit got his earphone tuned up. He can hear a fly’s footstep now.”
“I—I’m sorry, sir,” said Cecil. “It wasn’t your fault, I know, but it was a bit embarrassing.”
“That’s all right, son,” said Uncle Moffit big-heartedly. “All right with me.”
Cecil drove around to the garage, hid the clothes horse under a pile .of sacks and carted the jar up to his room by
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the back staircase. He set it on the table and stared at it. A very homely thing; but then sentiment attaches to the strangest objects. Well, she would have it tomorrow. Yes, if he had to hang it around his neck and bring it to her on hands and knees and beg her to accept it, she should have it. She would be glad then. She might even relent toward him. He was sure she had mistaken him for Toby Greg, who was always going around breaking hearts.
Half the night Cecil lay awake, picturing his triumphal entry into Luella’s house with the treasured old jar. Probably she had played with it in her little girl days and confided secrets to it as little girls will, and made it a hiding place for her baby treasures, though it was empty now. That was the longest night Cecil ever put in. He arose at sunrise, breakfasted long before the family awakened, wrapped the jar carefully and set out on the long drive to Mill town.
HE REACHED there early in the afternoon, stopped at the first drugstore and borrowed the directory. Yes, there it was—Baker, Colonel John F., 97 Bayside. Cecil moved fast. In ten minutes he was parked in front of the Baker house; in ten seconds he was ringing the doorbell and waiting with a heart that threatened to pop out of his chest any minute.
Suppose she refused to see him. Suppose she wasn’t home, or had witnessed his arrival from the window and would not answer the doorbell. Someone was coming.
; Cecil hugged the big jar to his chest. It I was quite heavy, but it seemed only a feather to him now.
A maid opened the door.
“Miss—Miss Luella Baker—”
“Yes, sir,” said the maid. “Miss Baker’s at home. Will you step in?”
“Th—thank you,” said Cecil, snatching off his hat and stumbling forward. He tripped over a harmless-looking mat, skated for a yard or so on the shiny floor and fell with an awful, echoing crash. And there, amid tom newspaper and shards of colored pottery and woe unutterable, Luella found him. He looked up at her so abjectly, so piteously, that it would have taken a harder heart than hers to condemn him.
“I—I’m not—not Toby Greg.” He had rehearsed this speech all the w7ay up and miraculously it did not fail him now. “My name is Cecil Morehouse. It was all a mistake yesterday.”
Luella looked at him for a moment in
“I think it was,” she smiled gently. “I described you to Anne Page and she said you couldn’t be Toby Greg. Won’t you get up?”
“I’ve smashed it—the vase. Can you ever forgive me?”
“Surely. I didn’t care about the old jar. It was these I wanted.”
She knelt beside him so that her hair brushed his cheek, and picked from the débris a number of old, faded letters. She pulled them out, one by one, from what had been a false compartment in the jar, reached by a little plug in its base. Old, faded letters—boyish, sincere love letters, outpourings of the heart of youth to its beloved, and signed, “Ariel.” And it was for these, his own letters, that she had journeyed down to Brompton; for these she had bid against him, and for the loss of them told him she loathed and despised him.
They got to their feet. She led the way into the living room and turned to Cecil. The blue eyes were kind and bright. Cecil could only stare.
“You—you aren’t angry with me now, Luella?”
“I wasn’t ever angry with you really, not even when I thought you were that awful Toby Greg. He jilted my friend, Anne, you know.”
Luella sat on the chesterfield and patted the cushion beside her. Cecil sat down, too.
“Thank you.” His voice was coming better now, and he could look at her without feeling dizzy. Gosh, she was a knockout! And this was the acceptable time. W7hy be afraid? After all, she had treasured his love letters.
“Are you . . .? Maybe . . . I’ll be staying in town today. Would you come have dinner with me and—and go to a show?”
“Yes. I think I’d like that.”
Things were going well. Going splendidly. Now, when she learned that he, Cecil Morehouse, was the “Ariel” of the sonnets, the youth who had penned those letters . . .
“Those old letters,” he began. “Are they love letters?”
“Those? Oh, yes.”
“You must have wanted them an awful lot. They must have meant plenty to you.”
“Why, no. They’re just some goofy things sent me by a queer egg who wouldn’t even sign his name.”
“Oh! But why did you want the letters, then?”
“I used to write Aunt Susan’s recipes for fudge and cake and muffins on the backs of them, and I didn’t want to lose the recipes. Like to read them? The letters, I mean?”
“No,” said Cecil. Their eyes met with promise and understanding. “Oh, no, thanks. We don’t care about them now7, do we, Luella?”
“No,” said Luella. “Why should we?”