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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Love-Letters of Smith

By Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855–1896)

From ‘Short Sixes’

WHEN the little seamstress had climbed to her room in the story over the top story of the great brick tenement house in which she lived, she was quite tired out. If you do not understand what a story over a top story is, you must remember that there are no limits to human greed, and hardly any to the height of tenement houses. When the man who owned that seven-story tenement found that he could rent another floor, he found no difficulty in persuading the guardians of our building laws to let him clap another story on the roof, like a cabin on the deck of a ship; and in the southeasterly of the four apartments on this floor the little seamstress lived. You could just see the top of her window from the street—the huge cornice that had capped the original front, and that served as her window-sill now, quite hid all the lower part of the story on top of the top story.

The little seamstress was scarcely thirty years old, but she was such an old-fashioned little body in so many of her looks and ways that I had almost spelled her “sempstress,” after the fashion of our grandmothers. She had been a comely body, too; and would have been still, if she had not been thin and pale and anxious-eyed.

She was tired out to-night, because she had been working hard all day for a lady who lived far up in the “New Wards” beyond Harlem River, and after the long journey home she had to climb seven flights of tenement-house stairs. She was too tired, both in body and in mind, to cook the two little chops she had brought home. She would save them for breakfast, she thought. So she made herself a cup of tea on the miniature stove, and ate a slice of dry bread with it. It was too much trouble to make toast.

But after dinner she watered her flowers. She was never too tired for that, and the six pots of geraniums that caught the south sun on the top of the cornice did their best to repay her. Then she sat down in her rocking-chair by the window and looked out. Her eyry was high above all the other buildings, and she could look across some low roofs opposite and see the further end of Tompkins Square, with its sparse spring green showing faintly through the dusk. The eternal roar of the city floated up to her and vaguely troubled her. She was a country girl; and although she had lived for ten years in New York, she had never grown used to that ceaseless murmur. To-night she felt the languor of the new season, as well as the heaviness of physical exhaustion. She was almost too tired to go to bed.

She thought of the hard day done and the hard day to be begun after the night spent on the hard little bed. She thought of the peaceful days in the country, when she taught school in the Massachusetts village where she was born. She thought of a hundred small slights that she had to bear from people better fed than bred. She thought of the sweet green fields that she rarely saw nowadays. She thought of the long journey forth and back that must begin and end her morrow’s work, and she wondered if her employer would think to offer to pay her fare. Then she pulled herself together. She must think of more agreeable things or she could not sleep. And as the only agreeable things she had to think about were her flowers, she looked at the garden on top of the cornice.

A peculiar gritting noise made her look down, and she saw a cylindrical object that glittered in the twilight, advancing in an irregular and uncertain manner toward her flower-pots. Looking closer, she saw that it was a pewter beer-mug, which somebody in the next apartment was pushing with a two-foot rule. On top of the beer-mug was a piece of paper, and on this paper was written, in a sprawling, half-formed hand:—

  • porter
  • pleas excuse the libberty And
  • drink it
  • The seamstress started up in terror and shut the window. She remembered that there was a man in the next apartment. She had seen him on the stairs on Sundays. He seemed a grave, decent person; but—he must be drunk. She sat down on her bed all a tremble. Then she reasoned with herself. The man was drunk, that was all. He probably would not annoy her further. And if he did, she had only to retreat to Mrs. Mulvaney’s apartment in the rear, and Mr. Mulvaney, who was a highly respectable man and worked in a boiler-shop, would protect her. So, being a poor woman who had already had occasion to excuse—and refuse—two or three “libberties” of like sort, she made up her mind to go to bed like a reasonable seamstress, and she did. She was rewarded, for when her light was out, she could see in the moonlight that the two-foot rule appeared again with one joint bent back, hitched itself into the mug-handle, and withdrew the mug.

    The next day was a hard one for the little seamstress, and she hardly thought of the affair of the night before until the same hour had come around again, and she sat once more by her window. Then she smiled at the remembrance. “Poor fellow,” she said in her charitable heart, “I’ve no doubt he’s awfully ashamed of it now. Perhaps he was never tipsy before. Perhaps he didn’t know there was a lone woman in here to be frightened.”

    Just then she heard a gritting sound. She looked down. The pewter pot was in front of her, and the two-foot rule was slowly retiring. On the pot was a piece of paper, and on the paper was—

  • porter
  • good for the helth
  • it makes meet
  • This time the little seamstress shut her window with a bang of indignation. The color rose to her pale cheeks. She thought that she would go down to see the janitor at once. Then she remembered the seven flights of stairs; and she resolved to see the janitor in the morning. Then she went to bed, and saw the mug drawn back just as it had been drawn back the night before.

    The morning came, but somehow the seamstress did not care to complain to the janitor. She hated to make trouble—and the janitor might think—and—and—well, if the wretch did it again she would speak to him herself, and that would settle it. And so on the next night, which was a Thursday, the little seamstress sat down by her window, resolved to settle the matter. And she had not sat there long, rocking in the creaking little rocking-chair which she had brought with her from her old home, when the pewter pot hove in sight, with a piece of paper on the top. This time the legend read:—

  • Perhaps you are afrade i will
  • adress you
  • i am not that kind
  • The seamstress did not quite know whether to laugh or to cry. But she felt that the time had come for speech. She leaned out of her window and addressed the twilight heaven.

    “Mr.—Mr.—sir—I—will you please put your head out of the window so that I can speak to you?”

    The silence of the other room was undisturbed. The seamstress drew back, blushing. But before she could nerve herself for another attack, a piece of paper appeared on the end of the two-foot rule.

  • when i Say a thing i
  • mene it
  • i have Sed i would not
  • Adress you and i
  • Will not
  • What was the little seamstress to do? She stood by the window and thought hard about it. Should she complain to the janitor? But the creature was perfectly respectful. No doubt he meant to be kind. He certainly was kind, to waste these pots of porter on her. She remembered the last time—and the first—that she had drunk porter. It was at home, when she was a young girl, after she had the diphtheria. She remembered how good it was, and how it had given her back her strength. And without one thought of what she was doing, she lifted the pot of porter and took one little reminiscent sip—two little reminiscent sips—and became aware of her utter fall and defeat. She blushed now as she had never blushed before, put the pot down, closed the window, and fled to her bed like a deer to the woods.

    And when the porter arrived the next night, bearing the simple appeal—

  • Dont be afrade of it
  • drink it all
  • the little seamstress arose and grasped the pot firmly by the handle, and poured its contents over the earth around her largest geranium. She poured the contents out to the last drop, and then she dropped the pot, and ran back and sat on her bed and cried, with her face hid in her hands.

    “Now,” she said to herself, “you’ve done it! And you’re just as nasty and hard-hearted and suspicious and mean as—as pusley!” And she wept to think of her hardness of heart. “He will never give me a chance to say ‘I am sorry,’” she thought. And really, she might have spoken kindly to the poor man, and told him that she was much obliged to him, but that he really must not ask her to drink porter with him.

    “But it’s all over and done now,” she said to herself as she sat at her window on Saturday night. And then she looked at the cornice, and saw the faithful little pewter pot traveling slowly toward her.

    She was conquered. This act of Christian forbearance was too much for her kindly spirit. She read the inscription on the paper,

  • porter is good for Flours
  • but better for Fokes
  • and she lifted the pot to her lips, which were not half so red as her cheeks, and took a good, hearty, grateful draught.

    She sipped in thoughtful silence after this first plunge, and presently she was surprised to find the bottom of the pot in full view. On the table at her side a few pearl buttons were screwed up in a bit of white paper. She untwisted the paper and smoothed it out, and wrote in a tremulous hand—she could write a very neat hand—

  • Thanks.
  • This she laid on the top of the pot, and in a moment the bent two-foot rule appeared and drew the mail-carriage home. Then she sat still, enjoying the warm glow of the porter, which seemed to have permeated her entire being with a heat that was not at all like the unpleasant and oppressive heat of the atmosphere, an atmosphere heavy with the spring damp. A gritting on the tin aroused her. A piece of paper lay under her eyes.
  • fine groing weather
  • Smith
  • Now it is unlikely that in the whole round and range of conversational commonplaces there was one other greeting that could have induced the seamstress to continue the exchange of communications. But this simple and homely phrase touched her country heart. What did “groing weather” matter to the toilers in this waste of brick and mortar? This stranger must be, like herself, a country-bred soul, longing for the new green and the upturned brown mold of the country fields. She took up the paper, and wrote under the first message:—

  • Fine
  • But that seemed curt: “for—” she added; “for” what? She did not know. At last in desperation she put down “potatoes.” The piece of paper was withdrawn, and came back with an addition:—
  • Too mist for potatos
  • And when the little seamstress had read this, and grasped the fact that “m-i-s-t” represented the writer’s pronunciation of “moist,” she laughed softly to herself. A man whose mind at such a time was seriously bent upon potatoes was not a man to be feared. She found a half-sheet of note-paper, and wrote:—
  • I lived in a small village before I came to New York, but I am afraid I do not know much about farming. Are you a farmer?
  • The answer came:—
  • have ben most Every thing
  • farmed a Spel in Maine
  • Smith
  • As she read this, the seamstress heard the church clock strike nine.

    “Bless me, is it so late?” she cried, and she hurriedly penciled Good Night, thrust the paper out, and closed the window. But a few minutes later, passing by, she saw yet another bit of paper on the cornice, fluttering in the evening breeze. It said only good nite, and after a moment’s hesitation, the little seamstress took it in and gave it shelter.

    After this they were the best of friends. Every evening the pot appeared, and while the seamstress drank from it at her window, Mr. Smith drank from its twin at his; and notes were exchanged as rapidly as Mr. Smith’s early education permitted. They told each other their histories, and Mr. Smith’s was one of travel and variety, which he seemed to consider quite a matter of course. He had followed the sea, he had farmed, he had been a logger and a hunter in the Maine woods. Now he was foreman of an East River lumber-yard, and he was prospering. In a year or two he would have enough laid by to go home to Bucksport and buy a share in a ship-building business. All this dribbled out in the course of a jerky but variegated correspondence, in which autobiographic details were mixed with reflections moral and philosophical.

    A few samples will give an idea of Mr. Smith’s style:—

  • i was one trip to van demens
  • land
  • To which the seamstress replied:—
  • It must have been very interesting.
  • But Mr. Smith disposed of this subject very briefly:—
  • it wornt
  • Further he vouchsafed:—

  • i seen a Chinese cook in
  • hong kong could cook flapjacks
  • like your mother
  • a mishnery that sells Rum
  • is the menest of Gods crechers
  • a bulfite is not what it is
  • cract up to Be
  • the dagos are wussen the
  • brutes
  • i am 6 13/4
  • but my Father was 6 foot 4
  • The seamstress had taught school one winter, and she could not refrain from making an attempt to reform Mr. Smith’s orthography. One evening, in answer to this communication,—

  • i killd a Bare in Maine 600
  • lbs waight
  • she wrote:—
  • Isn’t it generally spelled Bear?
  • but she gave up the attempt when he responded:—
  • a bare is a mene animle any
  • way you spel him
  • The spring wore on, and the summer came, and still the evening drink and the evening correspondence brightened the close of each day for the little seamstress. And the draught of porter put her to sleep each night, giving her a calmer rest than she had ever known during her stay in the noisy city; and it began, moreover, to make a little “meet” for her. And then the thought that she was going to have an hour of pleasant companionship somehow gave her courage to cook and eat her little dinner, however tired she was. The seamstress’s cheeks began to blossom with the June roses.

    And all this time Mr. Smith kept his vow of silence unbroken, though the seamstress sometimes tempted him with little ejaculations and exclamations to which he might have responded. He was silent and invisible. Only the smoke of his pipe, and the clink of his mug as he set it down on the cornice, told her that a living, material Smith was her correspondent. They never met on the stairs, for their hours of coming and going did not coincide. Once or twice they passed each other in the street—but Mr. Smith looked straight ahead of him about a foot over her head. The little seamstress thought he was a very fine-looking man, with his six feet one and three-quarters and his thick brown beard. Most people would have called him plain.

    Once she spoke to him. She was coming home one summer evening, and a gang of corner-loafers stopped her and demanded money to buy beer, as is their custom. Before she had time to be frightened, Mr. Smith appeared,—whence, she knew not,—scattered the gang like chaff, and collaring two of the human hyenas, kicked them, with deliberate, ponderous, alternate kicks, until they writhed in ineffable agony. When he let them crawl away, she turned to him and thanked him warmly, looking very pretty now, with the color in her cheeks. But Mr. Smith answered no word. He stared over her head, grew red in the face, fidgeted nervously, but held his peace until his eyes fell on a rotund Teuton passing by.

    “Say, Dutchy!” he roared. The German stood aghast. “I ain’t got nothing to write with!” thundered Mr. Smith, looking him in the eye. And then the man of his word passed on his way.

    And so the summer went on, and the two correspondents chatted silently from window to window, hid from sight of all the world below by the friendly cornice. And they looked out over the roof and saw the green of Tompkins Square grow darker and dustier as the months went on.

    Mr. Smith was given to Sunday trips into the suburbs, and he never came back without a bunch of daisies or black-eyed Susans or, later, asters or golden-rod for the little seamstress. Sometimes, with a sagacity rare in his sex, he brought her a whole plant, with fresh loam for potting.

    He gave her also a reel in a bottle, which, he wrote, he had “maid” himself, and some coral, and a dried flying-fish that was something fearful to look upon, with its sword-like fins and its hollow eyes. At first she could not go to sleep with that flying-fish hanging on the wall.

    But he surprised the little seamstress very much one cool September evening, when he shoved this letter along the cornice:—

  • Respected and Honored Madam:
  • Having long and vainly sought an opportunity to convey to you the expression of my sentiments, I now avail myself of the privilege of epistolary communication to acquaint you with the fact that the Emotions, which you have raised in my breast, are those which should point to Connubial Love and Affection rather than to simple Friendship. In short, Madam, I have the Honor to approach you with a Proposal, the acceptance of which will fill me with ecstatic Gratitude, and enable me to extend to you those Protecting Cares, which the Matrimonial Bond makes at once the Duty and the Privilege of him, who would, at no distant date, lead to the Hymeneal Altar one whose charms and virtues should suffice to kindle its Flames, without extraneous Aid.
  • I remain, Dear Madam,
    Your Humble Servant and
    Ardent Adorer, J. Smith.
  • The little seamstress gazed at this letter a long time. Perhaps she was wondering in what Ready Letter-Writer of the last century Mr. Smith had found his form. Perhaps she was amused at the results of his first attempt at punctuation. Perhaps she was thinking of something else, for there were tears in her eyes and a smile on her small mouth.

    But it must have been a long time, and Mr. Smith must have grown nervous, for presently another communication came along the line where the top of the cornice was worn smooth. It read:

  • If not understood will you
  • mary me
  • The little seamstress seized a piece of paper and wrote:—
  • If I say Yes, will you speak to me?
  • Then she rose and passed it out to him, leaning out of the window, and their faces met.