The Indiscreet LetterMay 10, 2008
About a year ago I read a story by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott called “The Indiscreet Letter,” and I’m not sure why I never posted about it here because it’s one of the most adorable things I’ve ever read.
It’s about a train journey from Halifax to Boston, or rather the tail end of it. There are three main characters, the Traveling Salesman, the Young Electrician, and the Youngish Girl.
The Traveling Salesman — “short and quick,” as opposed to the “long and slow” train journey — spends most of the story pinning price tags on women’s undershirts, and “surely no other man in the whole southward-bound Canadian train could have been at once so ingenuous and so nonchalant.”
The Young Electrician is “absurdly blond” and good-looking — “from his huge cowhide boots to the lead smouch that ran from his rough, square chin to the very edge of his astonishingly blond curls, he was one delicious mess of toil and old clothes and smiling, blue-eyed indifference” — and apparently makes everyone who sees him think of mountains and wood-smoke and things like that. The Traveling Salesman does most of the talking; the Young Electrician is sort of shy, and blushes every time he says anything, while at the same time being completely unaffected.
The two of them are talking about indiscreet letters — the Traveling Salesman knows a man who recently died with an unsent love-letter in his pocket. It “began ‘Dearest Little Rosie,’ called her a ‘Honey’ and a ‘Dolly Girl’ and a ‘Pink-Fingered Precious,’ made a rather foolish dinner appointment for Thursday in New Haven, and was signed—in the Lord’s own time—at the end of four pages, ‘Yours forever, and then some. TOM.’—Now the wife of the deceased was named—Martha.'”
The Youngish Girl — wealthy and refined, but also without affectation, and apparently much more at home with the Traveling Salesman and the Young Electrician than with her own sort of people — interrupts. She’s been eavesdropping, she confesses, but she missed the beginning. When she hears the whole story, she tells them that the letter to “Rosie” isn’t an indiscreet letter at all — to be really indiscreet, a letter has to be a gamble, something that may be perfectly right to send, but the sender won’t know whether or not it was until after he or she has sent it.
From the story of the letter, they move on to other subjects — marriage, and women, and people in general. In one particularly poignant bit, the Traveling Salesman talks about an incident in his youth: he was the clever one of the family, while his brother Daniel was a little on the dull side. Bringing home a good report from school at the end of one year, the Traveling Salesman said to his father, “Pa! There’s my report! And Pa…Pa! Teacher says that one of your boys has got to go to college!” And, after working out that they can afford it, barely, his father said “Johnny…it’s Daniel that’ll have to go to college. Bright men…don’t need no education.” And the Traveling Salesman reveals that. although Daniel did get through college, and is now a Methodist minister in Georgia with a wife and kids, he, the Traveling Salesman, is paying most of their bills.
The Young Electrician turns out to be the father of six boys. There’s something very normal and down-to-earth about him, but at the same time, the Traveling Salesman and the Youngish Girl agree — during the Young Electrician’s brief absence — that he makes them think of the oddest things. “Blue Mountains, and Green Forests, and Brown Pine Needles, and a Long, Hard Trail, shoulder to shoulder—with a chance to warm one’s heart at last at a hearth-fire—bigger than a sunset!” in the Youngish Girl’s case, and in the Traveling Salesman’s words, “Every time I look at him I—forget all about him. My head begins to wag and my foot begins to tap—and I find myself trying to—hum him—as though he was the words of a tune I used to know.”
At this point the Youngish Girl begins to cry. “I’ve—never—been—to—Boston—before,” she confesses.
“What!” exclaimed the Traveling Salesman. “Been all around the world—and never been to Boston?—Oh, I see,” he added hurriedly, “you’re afraid your friends won’t meet you!”
Out of the Youngish Girl’s erstwhile disconsolate mouth a most surprising laugh issued. “No! I’m afraid they will meet me,” she said dryly.
Just as a soldier’s foot turns from his heel alone, so the Traveling Salesman’s whole face seemed to swing out suddenly from his chin, till his surprised eyes stared direct into the Girl’s surprised eyes.
“My heavens!” he said. “You don’t mean that you’ve—been writing an—’indiscreet letter’?”
And then the Youngish Girl tells her story. Exactly a year before, there was a wreck on the line they’re traveling on. “And the sleeper went clear over the bridge…and fell into an awful gully…and caught fire besides,” the Traveling Salesman remembers.
“Yes,” the Youngish Girl says. “I was in the sleeper.”
She and the man in the compartment above her were the only two people in the car who were left alive, and in the several hours before they were rescued, he told her the story of his life. “It began about the first thing in all his life that he remembered seeing—something funny about a grandmother’s brown wig hung over the edge of a white piazza railing—and he told me his name and address, and all about his people, and all about his business, and what banks his money was in, and something about some land down in the Panhandle, and all the bad things that he’d ever done in his life, and all the good things, that he wished there’d been more of, and all the things that no one would dream of telling you if he ever, ever expected to see Daylight again.”
Several months later, she wrote to him — her indiscreet letter — asking him to meet her in Boston a year to the day after the wreck. She won’t mind of he’s married, or never got the letter, because that means “‘Fate has surely settled everything perfectly definitely for me—that way. The only trouble with that would be,’ she added whimsically, ‘that an unanswered letter is always pretty much like an unhooked hook. Any kind of a gap is apt to be awkward, and the hook that doesn’t catch in its own intended tissue is mighty apt to tear later at something you didn’t want torn.'”
When they arrive in Boston, two hours late, there is a happy ending, and a lovely little scene with the Traveling Salesman’s wife, and really, it’s so cute. It’s a fluffy sort of story, of course, and there are a number of things in it that I don’t exactly agree with, but who cares? It’s not entirely without substance, but it is entirely sweet.