Chapter XIX. The Trials of an Assistant Postmaster
 

By all laws of mercy the post-master in a small town should be old and mentally near-sighted. Jimmy Reed was young and curious. He had even yielded to temptation once in removing a stamp on a letter from Annette Fenton to a strange suitor. Not that he wanted to delay the letter. He only wanted to know if she put tender messages under the stamp when she wrote to other people.

During the two years Sandy remained at the university, Jimmy handed his letters out of the post-office window to the judge once a week, following them half-way with his body to pick up the verbal crumbs of interest the judge might let fall while perusing them. The supremacy which Sandy had established in the base-ball days had lent him a permanent halo in the eyes of the younger boys of Clayton. "Letter from Sandy this morning," Jimmy would announce, adding somewhat anxiously, "Ain't he on the team yet?"

The judge was obliging and easy-going, and he frequently gratified Jimmy's curiosity.

"No; he's studying pretty hard these days. He says he is through with athletics."

"Does he like it up there?"

"Oh, yes, yes; I guess he likes it well enough," the judge would answer tentatively; "but I am afraid he's working too hard."

"Looks like a pity to spoil such a good pitcher," said Jimmy, thoughtfully. "I never saw him lose but one game, and that nearly killed him."

"Disappointment goes hard with him," said the judge, and he sighed.

Jimmy's chronic interest developed into acute curiosity the second winter--about the time the Nelsons returned to Clayton after a long absence.

On Thanksgiving morning he found two letters bearing his hero's handwriting. One was to Judge Hollis and one to Miss Ruth Nelson. The next week there were also two, both of which went to Miss Nelson. After that it became a regular occurrence.

Jimmy recognized two letters a week from one person to one person as a danger-signal. His curiosity promptly rose to fever-heat. He even went so far as to weigh the letters, and roughly to calculate the number of pages in each. Once or twice he felt something hard inside, and upon submitting the envelop to his nose, he distinguished the faint fragrance of pressed flowers. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise that the duty of sorting the outgoing mail did not fall to his lot. One added bit of information would have resulted in spontaneous combustion.

By and by letters came daily, their weight increasing until they culminated, about Christmas-time, in a special-delivery letter which bristled under the importance of its extra stamp.

The same morning the telegraph operator stopped in to ask if the Nelsons had been in for their mail. "I have a message for Miss Nelson, but I thought they started for California this morning."

"It's to-morrow morning they go," said Jimmy. "I'll send the message out. I've got a special letter for her, and they can both go out by the same boy."

When the operator had gone, Jimmy promptly unfolded the yellow slip, which was innocent of envelop.

Do not read special-delivery letter. Will explain.

S.K.

For some time he sat with the letter in one hand and the message in the other. Why had Sandy written that huge letter if he did not want her to read it? Why didn't he want her to read it? Questions buzzed about him like bees.

Large ears are said to be indicative of an inquisitive nature. Jimmy's stood out like the handles on a loving-cup. With all this explosive material bottled up in him, he felt like a torpedo-boat deprived of action.

After a while he got up and went into the drug-store next door. When he came back he made sure he was alone in the office. Then he propped up the lid of his desk with the top of his head, in a manner acquired at school, and hiding behind this improvised screen, he carefully took from his pocket a small bottle of gasolene. Pouring a little on his handkerchief, he applied it to the envelop of the special-delivery letter.

As if by magic, the words within showed through; and by frequent applications of the liquid the engrossed Jimmy deciphered the following:

--like the moan of the sea in my heart, and it will not be still. Heart, body, and soul will call to you, Ruth, so long as the breath is in my body. I have not the courage to be your friend. I swear, with all the strength I have left, never to see you nor write you again. God bless you, my--

A noise at the window brought Jimmy to the surface. It was Annette Fenton, and she seemed nervous and excited.

"Mercy, Jimmy! What's the m-matter? You looked like you were caught eating doughnuts in study hour. What a funny smell! Say, Jimmy; don't you want to do something for me?"

Jimmy had spent his entire youth in urging her to accept everything that was his, and he hailed this as a good omen.

"I have a l-letter here for dad," she went on, fidgeting about uneasily and watching the door. "I don't want him to g-get it until after the last train goes to-night. Will you see that he d-doesn't get it before nine o'clock?"

Jimmy took the letter and looked blankly from it to Annette.

"Why, it's from you!"

"What if it is, you b-booby?" she cried sharply; then she changed her tactics and looked up appealingly through the little square window.

"Oh, Jimmy, do help me out! That's a d-dear! I'm in no end of a scrape. You'll do as I ask, now w-w-won't you?"

Jimmy surrendered on the spot.

"Now," said Annette, greatly relieved, "find out what time the d-down train starts, and if it's on time."

"It ought to start at three," reported Jimmy after consulting the telegraph operator. "It's an hour late on account of the snow. Expecting somebody?"

She shook her head.

"Going to the city yourself?"

"Of course not. Whatever made you think that?" she cried with unnecessary vehemence. Then, changing the subject abruptly, she added: "G-guess who has come home?"

"Who?" cried Jimmy, with palpitating ears.

"Sandy Kilday. You never saw anybody look so g-grand. He's gotten to be a regular swell, and he walks like this."

Annette held her umbrella horizontally, squared her shoulders, and swung bravely across the room.

"Sandy Kilday?" gasped Jimmy, with a clutch at the letter in his pocket. "Where's he at?"

"He's trying to get up from the d-depot. He has been an hour coming two squares. Everybody has stopped him, from Mr. Moseley on down to the b-blacksmith's twins."

"Is he coming this way?" asked Jimmy, wild-eyed and anxious.

Annette stepped to the window.

"Yes; they are crossing the street now." She opened the sash and, snatching a handful of snow, rolled it into a ball, which she sailed out of the window. It was promptly answered by one from below, which whirled past her and shattered itself against the wall.

"Dare, dare, double dare!" she called as she flung handfuls of loose snow from the window-ledge. A quick volley of balls followed, then the door burst open. Sandy and Ruth Nelson stood laughing on the threshold.

"Hello, partner!" sang out Sandy to Jimmy. "Still at the old work, I see! Do you mind how you taught me to count the change when I first sold stamps?"

Jimmy tried to smile, but his effort was a failure. The interesting tangle of facts and circumstances faded from his mind, and he resorted instinctively to nature's first law. With an agitated countenance, he sought self-preservation by waving Sandy's letter behind him in a frantic effort to banish, if possible, the odor of his guilt.

Sandy stayed at the door with Annette, but Ruth came to the window and asked for her mail. When she smiled at the contrite Jimmy she scattered the few remaining ideas that lingered in his brain. With crimson face and averted eyes, he handed her the letter, forgetting that telegrams existed.

He saw her send a quick, puzzled glance from the letter to Sandy; he saw her turn away from the door and tear open the envelop; then, to his everlasting credit, he saw no more.

When he ventured forth from behind his desk the office was empty. He made a cautious survey of the premises; then, opening a back window, he seized a small bottle by the neck and hurled it savagely against the brick wall opposite.