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Chapter 3

Only four days after he had seen Armiger, Verrian received an envelope covering a brief note to himself from the editor, a copy of the letter he had written to Verrian's unknown correspondent, and her answer in the original. Verrian was alone when the postman brought him this envelope, and he could indulge a certain passion for method by which he read its contents in the order named; if his mother had been by, she would have made him read the girl's reply first of all. Armiger wrote:

"MY DEAR VERRIAN,—I enclose two exhibits which will possess you of all the facts in the case of the young lady who feared she might die before she read the end of your story, but who, you will be glad to find, is likely to live through the year. As the story ends in our October number, she need not be supplied with advance sheets. I am sorry the house hurried out a paragraph concerning the matter, but it will not be followed by another. Perhaps you will feel, as I do, that the incident is closed. I have not replied to the writer, and you need not return her letter. Yours ever,

"M. ARMIGER."

The editor's letter to the young lady read:

"DEAR MADAM,—Mr. P. S. Verrian has handed me your letter of the 4th, and I need not tell you that it has interested us both.

"I am almost as much gratified as he by the testimony your request bears to the importance of his work, and if I could have acted upon my instant feeling I should have had no hesitation in granting it, though it is so very unusual as to be, in my experience as an editor, unprecedented. I am sure that you would not have made it so frankly if you had not been prepared to guard in return any confidence placed in you; but you will realize that as you are quite unknown to us, we should not be justified in taking a step so unusual as you propose without having some guarantee besides that which Mr. Verrian and I both feel from the character of your letter. Simply, then, for purposes of identification, as the phrase is, I must beg you to ask the pastor of your church, or, better still, your family physician, to write you a line saying that he knows you, as a sort of letter of introduction to me. Then I will send you the advance proofs of Mr. Verrian's story. You may like to address me personally in the care of the magazine, and not as the editor.

"Yours very respectfully,

"M. ARMIGER."

The editor's letter was dated the 6th of the month; the answer, dated the 8th, betrayed the anxious haste of the writer in replying, and it was not her fault if what she wrote came to Verrian when he was no longer able to do justice to her confession. Under the address given in her first letter she now began, in, a hand into which a kindlier eye might have read a pathetic perturbation:

"DEAR SIR,—I have something awful to tell you. I might write pages without making you think better of me, and I will let you think the worst at once. I am not what I pretended to be. I wrote to Mr. Verrian saying what I did, and asking to see the rest of his story on the impulse of the moment. I had been reading it, for I think it is perfectly fascinating; and a friend of mine, another girl, and I got together trying to guess how he would end it, and we began to dare each other to write to him and ask. At first we did not dream of doing such a thing, but we went on, and just for the fun of it we drew lots to see which should write to him. The lot fell to me; but we composed that letter together, and we put in about my dying for a joke. We never intended to send it; but then one thing led to another, and I signed it with my real name and we sent it. We did not really expect to hear anything from it, for we supposed he must get lots of letters about his story and never paid any attention to them. We did not realize what we had done till I got your letter yesterday. Then we saw it all, and ever since we have been trying to think what to do, and I do not believe either of us has slept a moment. We have come to the conclusion that there was only one thing we could do, and that was to tell you just exactly how it happened and take the consequences. But there is no reason why more than one person should be brought into it, and so I will not let my friend sign this letter with me, but I will put my own name alone to it. You may not think it is my real name, but it is; you can find out by writing to the postmaster here. I do not know whether you will publish it as a fraud for the warning of others, but I shall not blame you if you do. I deserve anything.

"Yours truly,

"JERUSHA PEREGRINE BROWN."

If Verrian had been an older man life might have supplied him with the means of judging the writer of this letter. But his experience as an author had not been very great, and such as it was it had hardened and sharpened him. There was nothing wild or whirling in his mood, but in the deadly hurt which had been inflicted upon his vanity he coldly and carefully studied what deadlier hurt he might inflict again. He was of the crueller intent because he had not known how much of personal vanity there was in the seriousness with which he took himself and his work. He had supposed that he was respecting his ethics and aesthetics, his ideal of conduct and of art, but now it was brought home to him that he was swollen with the conceit of his own performance, and that, however well others thought of it, his own thought of it far outran their will to honor it. He wished to revenge himself for this consciousness as well as the offence offered him; of the two the consciousness was the more disagreeable.

His mother, dressed for the street, came in where he sat quiet at his desk, with the editor's letters and the girl's before him, and he mutely referred them to her with a hand lifted over his shoulder. She read them, and then she said, "This is hard to bear, Philip. I wish I could bear it for you, or at least with you; but I'm late for my engagement with Mrs. Alfred, as it is—No, I will telephone her I'm detained and we'll talk it over—"

"No, no! Not on any account! I'd rather think it out for myself. You couldn't help me. After all, it hasn't done me any harm—"

"And you've had a great escape! And I won't say a word more now, but I'll be back soon, and then we—Oh, I'm so sorry I'm going."

Verrian gave a laugh. "You couldn't do anything if you stayed, mother. Do go!"

"Well—" She looked at him, smoothing her muff with her hand a moment, and then she dropped a fond kiss on his cheek and obeyed him.

William Dean Howells

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