Aunt Lavinia May's Letter
A Charming Outcome of Heart

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Springfield Sunday Republican December 9, 1900, Copyright, 1900, by the National Press Agency Limited.

Aunt Lavinia, or Miss Lavinia May, for she remained in her maiden estate until the time of her death, was famous in her day and generation for her skill in letter-writing, or — as they expressed it in those days, when everything had its full meed of syllables and adjectives, — her “epistolary art.” Miss Lavinia had an elegant little desk, which still stands intact upon the shores of time. It is inlaid with mother-of-pearl, it has a lock which never was secure even in its palmiest days, and they key with a faded blue ribbon attached, always kept in a corner of a drawer, will not fit it. When the desk is opened, a fragrance, so very faint and delicate that it is scarcely more than a suggestion of one, steals forth as impalpably as a memory. This fragrance is made up of rose leaves and sweet herbs, and musk and other things impossible to identify. The same fragrance is evident when the drawers of the old mahogany bureau upstair, which belonged to Miss Lavinia, are opened. It is the material evidence of her presence in the house.

At this desk Miss Lavinia used to sit to copy her famous and notable letters. All the labor of composition was performed upon a slate which no longer survives. Miss Lavinia's nephew, Thomas, who was born after her death and inherited the slate, let it fall one day from his desk in the district school, to the destruction of the slate and the ignominy of its owner, who was obliged to stand a half-hour on the floor in consequence.

Miss Lavinia came of a prosperous family, and lived in a fine old mansion house in one of the seaport villages of Massachusetts. After her parents died, and her two sisters and her brothers had married and gone away, Miss Lavinia was the head of the family at home. There lived with her two younger unmarried sisters, Salome and Lucy, and an orphan niece, Susan Becket. All the family held Lavinia's epistolary talents in great veneration, while she was the nominal head and mistress of the household, everybody conspired to relieve her as much as might be from the duties, while not infringing upon the glories of her position that she might have ample strength and leisure to devote to her pen.

“Your Aunt Lavinia is gifted,” Miss Salome used to say to young Susan Becket. “We must relieve her of as many as possible of the ordinary burdens of life that she may be enabled to improve her talent.”

Young Susan, who was 16, and had a sweet wondering baby face, assented, and Miss Lucy (who was very industrious and never seen without needles of some kind in her hands, and who at that moment was making a dress for her talented sister) said, with an expression which altered her good but rather dull fae as with a reflection of another's glory, that Lavinia was gifted as women seldom were, and ought to have none of the ordinary feminine duties to distract her mind.

Though the Mays were prosperous, even rich, and had always kept servants, the daughters had been instructed in all house-wifely wisdom by their mother, Lavinia with the others. But Lucy had oftener than not, even in their young days, performed her sister's tasks as well as her own. When Susan Becket came to live in the old house, she watched every opportunity to wait upon her Aunt Lavinia. Often, when she saw her composing letters upon the slate, she would drop her own knitting or patchwork, and stare at her in a very rapture of wonder and admiration. Sometimes Miss Lavinia sat for hours over the slate before she filled it, sometimes she sat for days, then she seated herself at her little work-table desk and trimmed her quill pen, spread her paper carefully, having adjusted her lines beneath and placed the sand ready in hand, and began to copy what she had composed in the finest chirography of which she was capable. Every downward and upward loop was carefully and beautifully shaded, and she placed all the dots as conscientiously as she paid her debts, and rendered unto Caesar the things which belonged to him, and all the letters moved from left to right as regularly and evenly slanted as a file of soldiers on a run of advance.

As for the subject matter, everybody admitted that was not to be excelled. Miss Lavinia held that a letter should have its own fine finish, like any good work, its elegant figures of speech, its ornaments of quotations, its embellishments of style, and she carried out her theory as earnestly as she kept the commandments. Miss Lavinia considered that no item of village or family news should be imparted withou its corollaries of elegant sentiments and moral reflections for the improvement of the soul and mind of the recipient.

Young Susan Becket could not have an attack of influenza without affording her Aunt Lavinia an opportunity for pages of wholesome descantation upon the transitoriness of all earthly joys and sorrows and the importance of improving every moment wisely in the cultivation of the powers of the mind and the graces of the soul.

Miss Salome could not have a toothache and pass a sleepless night without furnishing her sister with useful material for reflection, and Miss Lucy never finished a patchwork quilt or a piece of embroidery that it was not in a manner immortalized by Miss Lavinia for the enfolding of precious precepts and quotations from scripture and the poets.

Never a wedding or a death orrurred in the village but Miss Lavinia seized upon it like an industrious spider upon a cocoon, and spun therefrom wondrous webs of sentiment and fancy upon her pages of foolscap. One enthusiastic female friend of Miss Lavinia who was the recipient of frequent communications from her was reported to have remarked once that it seemed to her that it was almost worth while going through with a wedding or a funeral for the sake of having such beautiful letters written about it.

When Lavinia had copied all which she had written upon the slate, down she sat again to her labor of composition. It was Susan's work, eagerly performed and accounted as a privilege, to sponge the slate clean for the new instalment and see that the pencil was finely sharpened. An evening or an afternoon was not nearly long enough for Miss Lavinia to complete a letter to her satisfaction. Often she spent her leisure hours for a week, then sent the epistle away with an artless hypocrisy in the opening sentence, artless because her correspondent, having experienced similar throes and labors of composition, understood it for only what it was worth, as a graceful conventionality intended to relieve her from a sense of obligation and free the writer from the imputation of lack of ease in literary matters.

The opening sentence ran somewhat in this wise: “Having now a leisure moment, I take my pen in hand for the purpose of inditing a few hasty lines.” The gentle and ladylike lie was in the very face of the characters in which it was expressed as fine as miniature painting, to say nothing of the manifest impossibility of inditing a few hasty lines. The recipient had always mental visions of the slate, and after the slate the desk — perhaps with a midnight candle burning thereon and Lavinia seated before it, bending with graceful patience over her task, her long side-curls concealing her delicate cheeks and making dancing shadows on the paper, her slender fingers grasping the pen daintily and fashioning every letter as carefully as if she were painting a flower.

Miss Lavinia was quite a local celebrity by virtue of her letter-writing. She was considered almost as worthy of fame as an author of books, and by some to be more so, inasmuch as they deemed, holding the prejudices of the day, that book-writing was somewhat beyond the sphere of women, while letter-writing was virtuously and elegantly within it. One faithful friend and admirer said openly that for her part she had much rather write Lavinia May's letters that write Mrs Sigourney's poems.

It was argued that if Miss Lavinia had chosen to do so, whe could have written books; indeed, she often transcribed an original poem in an album, and she wrote beautiful sentiments in gracefully halting lines upon the deaths of friends, which were treasured in family Bibles. However, these were regarded by her as only digressions from her given line of epistolary excellence, and she was never very proud of them.

Lavinia's letters were all considered notable, but she was quite an old lady when she wrote the one which has become a family story, a folk-lore tale, as it were; for families as well as nations have their folk-lore tales. Susan Becket was a grown-up young lady, and had an admirer coming regularly on Wednesday and Sunday nights and Miss Lavinia's little work-table desk had been moved upstairs to the south chamber, because she was disturbed in her writing by the young man's visits, and it was such a very cold winter it was impossible for Susan to entertain him in the east parlor. It was hard enough to make the west room comfortable with the largest logs whcih the fireplace would hold. The south chamber was very warm and sunny, with its two south and two west windows, and Livinia's desk stood between the windows overlooking the road.

Susan's admirer, Ephraim Brewster, used often, when he had parted from his sweetheart and was going home, late in the evening, to look back at Miss Lavinia's window and see between the tasselled sweeps of dimity curtains her gentle old face, shaded by long gray curls, bending over her desk. He, too, had the popular admiration for Miss Lavinia's letters. Susan had often entertained him by reading over some which her aunt had sent her from time to time when she had been away on a visit.

“I ought to be thankful for such precepts as these to guide me,” Susan would remark, fervently, when she repeated Miss Lavinia's admonitions concerning vanity and lack of diligence, the proper estimation of the duties of life and the constant remembrance of that which comes after. A very saint little Susan would have been, had she fulfilled all the injunctions of her Aunt Lavinia's letters. It seemed doubtful if even Lavinia herself was capable, while in the flesh, of carrying out fully the precepts which she enjoined upon her niece. Still by her letters, Miss Livinia herself, allowing for a little over-gloss of expression, a few high-lights, so to speak, was revealed as the patient, womanly, pious soul that she was, full of sentiment which was noble though trite, and whose moral reflections discovering the further side of her thoughts and observations of daily life were not to be despised.

When Susan had been betrothed to Ephraim Brewster nearly two years, Miss Lavinia died very suddenly, and after the funeral began the famous search for her last letter. When Miss Salome and Miss Lucy and Susan began the loving and painful task of caring for, and packing away, after sundry little legacies had been given, Miss Lavinia's small possessions and little treasures of this world's goods, almost the first thing to be thought of was the letter. Miss Lavinia had been known to be busied upon a letter for weeks before her death, sitting up late at night and even neglecting her usual tasks of knitting and reading to write.

“Where do you suppose that last letter of hers is?” Miss Salome said, tearfully, when the three loving, lonely women were engaged in sorting the contents of the little work-table desk with reverent fingers.

“I don't see it anywhere,” said Miss Lucy, quite pale with perplexity.

“I am sure I never posted it for her,” said Susan.

“It's a pity if we cannot find it — the last letter she ever wrote,” Miss Solome said.

“I cannot be reconciled to it,” Miss Lucy sighed.

“It must be somewhere,” Susan said, stoutly, “for we all know she wrote it, and if it wasn't posted it must be somewhere in the house. I am going to hunt till I find it if it takes me a year. Dear Aunt Lavinia's last beautiful letter shall not be lost.”

“It was sure to be just as beautiful as ever,” Miss Lucy said. “She never failed in her mind as she gained in years.”

“She had a gifted mind,” rejoined Miss Salome.

“I am never going to rest until I find that letter,” declared Susan.

The three searched for that last letter from Miss Lavinia's gently gifted pen as they might have searched for the last manuscript of some famous author or musician. They ransacked chests and boxes and bureau drawers. They even mounted to the garret, where it was almost inconceivable that Miss Lavinia could have climbed, for her limbs had been feeble in her latter days. They looked through the old hair trunks, and unearthed files of letters written by hands long since dust, but Miss Lavinia's was not among them.

At last they gave up the search. “As far as I am concerned I would give every line that was ever written by any author, even Shakespeare and John Milton, if I could find dear sister Lavinia's last letter,” said Miss Lucy. She said it standing in the south doorway one morning in May, and Miss Salome and Susan were with her; they had just come down from the garret.

“I don't believe that letter is in the house,” said Miss Salome, knitting her forehead.

“I don't see how it ever got out of the house,” Susan remarked, perplexedly. “Aunt Lavinia never stepped outdoors for months before she died, and old Mr Pearson says she had not given him any letters to mail for a week, and she was at work on that last one only three days before she died.”

Old Mr Pearson was the man who did errands and odd jobs about the house for the May sisters. He was quite aged, but had a remarkable memory and was to be relied upon.

“If Mr Pearson says so, she didn't, but it is very strange how that letter got out of the house,” said Miss Salome.

Just then a boy raced past with a wild whoop, which made them all start. He jostled the bush of flowering almond at the gate, too, and shook off a rain of pink blossoms.

“Tommy Pellett is a very careless boy,” said Miss Salome, quite severely.

“He is a very noisy boy,” rejoined Miss Lucy, with even more severity. “I fear he has not very good home-training.”

“If dear Aunt Lavinia sent that letter to any one,” said Susan, keeping to the subject of the lost letter, since her young nerves were not as easily disturbed by noisy boys as her aunt's, “we should have heard of it by this time. It is almost a year since she died.”

“That is true,” returned Miss Lucy. “It is very strange.”

“Well, it is not in the house,” said Miss Salome, “not even the fragments of it, and she could not have burnt it, for it was summer-time and no fire in her room, and she had not been down in the kitchen for a week.”

Miss Lavinia's last letter remained a mystery for many years. Susan married Ephraimn Brewster and went to Grover to live. The two sisters, Salome and Lucy, were left alone in the May homestead, with their old servant woman. They never ceased regretting the loss of their sister Lavinia's last letter. Every now and then one or the other would start up suddenly, drop her work and hasten to search in some new place, which she had just thought of; but the letter was never there.

“It would not surprise me at all if that had been the most beautiful letter she ever wrote,” Lucy would often say, and Salome would nod in sorrowful acquiescence.

On Christmas day, when Susan had been married about 10 years, she came over unexpectedly with her little daughter Lavinia, driving herself. Ephraim Brewster owned a white hores and chaise, but he expected to be forced to sell it before long. He had met with heavy reverses; there was a mortgage on his house in Grover, which was to be foreclosed shortly. Poor Susan had been depressed for a long time; but that day she looked radiant, as she lifted little Lavinia out of the chaise and turned to greet her aunts.

“Yes, it is a beautiful day; and we are both well,” said she, hurriedly. “Come into the house quick, both of you, and don't let's stop a minute. I have something to tell you.”

The two old aunts followed her wonderingly, for she was evidently agitated, though the look of joy never left her face.

“I don't suppose anything dreadful has happened; you look so pleased,” Miss Salome said, tremblingly.

“No, and nothing dreadful is going to happen either, thanks to dear Aunt Lavinia, and this,” returned Susan, half-laughing and half-crying as she pulled an ancient and yellow letter from her pocket. “O Aunt Salome, O Aunt Lucy, here is the last letter!”

“Lavinia's last letter?” gasped Miss Salome.

“That letter we have always searched for?” Miss Lucy said, faintly.

“Yes, her last letter, dear Aunt Lavinia's last letter. O Aunt Lucy, sit down in the rocking-chair — quick; don't faint away!”

“I am not going to faint,” Miss Lucy affirmed, stoutly, though she sank into the rocking-chair with a very pale face. “No, dear, I don't want the camphor,” said she, when little Lavinia had brought it from the chimney cupboard, at her mother's direction. “Tell me how you came to find it — quick, Susan.”

Miss Salome held the letter tenderly, looking at it with tearful eyes.

“Dear Lavinia, it is her handwriting, after all these years,” she said; “but how came it to be mailed now, with a Lincoln, Neb., postmark on it; and here is a New York postmark, too, and a Grover, and it is directed to Sister Dorcas. I don't understand this, Susan.”

“Well, it was this way,” said Susan. “I will tell it as quick as I can. It is like a story. Nobody would believe it had happened if it had not happened. We wouldn't believe it if it had happened to anybody else. You see, Aunt Lavinia wrote this letter over 10 years ago, just before she died, to Aunt Dorcas in New York; and she opened her window one day when Tommy Pellet was racing by — you remember how he used to race — and she asked him to post it for her. She was a little secret about that letter, because of something she wrote in it; and she didn't want to give it to old Mr Pearson to post, and she didn't want us to know anything about it. So she hailed Tommy, and asked him if he was going to the post-office, and gave it to him.

“Well, Tommy Pellet didn't post it; he put it in his pocket; and when he got to the post-office it wasn't there. He was frightened when he discovered it was gone, and went back and searched for it along the road, but he couldn't find it. He had a struggle between his conscience, which ordered him to go at once to Aunt Lavinia and tell her all about it, and his fear, which instructed him to keep quiet about it and not be blamed, and his fear got the better of him. He never said anything about the letter, and I guess he raced faster than ever when he passed our house after that.

“Well, you remember the Pellets moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, a year or so after Aunt Lavinia died, and Tommy with them. He is grown-up now, and a clerk in a drug store, and is going to be married this fall. Two weeks ago his mother and the young lady his is going to marry found this letter in the lining of his old jacket, which they were cutting up to make a braided rug for the new home. It had slipped through a hole in the pocket, between the jacket and the lining, and there it remained all these years. Tommy stopped wearing the jacket soon afterward, because it had grown so tight for him, and his mother kept it to make a rug, and never got round to it till now.”

“Mrs Pellet was always a slow-moving woman,” remarked Miss Lucy, quiveringly.

“When she found the letter,” continued Susan, “she asked Tommy about it, and he remembered at once. I think it had troubled him some at the time. He wrote a very nice letter about it, in which he says that one reason why he was glad to move to Nebraska was that he would not be taken to task for losing that letter. It is quite ridiculous that he should have been so scared.”

“Especially of dear Lavinia, who was so mild,” said Miss Salome. “Go on, Susan.”

“Well, Tommy had the letter forwarded at once, just as it was — old seal, and folded paper, and all. Luckily, it was not injured, through his giving up wearing the jacket so soon after losing it. And luckily, Aunt Dorcas had not moved from her New York address in all these years, and she was coming to visit me, you know; and she came right on last night, and she brought the letter, because it is about me, it is about me, you know. O deart Aunt Lavinia! O dear Aunt Lavinia!”

Susan could scarcely speak for her happy tears, but she went on to tell the rest. “It was all about some money that she had saved up from her little income for years, and hidden away in a secret place at the back of her desk,” she said; “and ‐ she — wanted me to have it for my wedding present; and she was afraid if anything happened to her suddenly — and it seems the doctor had told her there might — that no one would ever find it. So she wrote to Aunt Dorcas, because she thought it would not hurt her so much to know the truth about her illness, as it would us who were right here with her, and she wanted to be sure I had it. She didn't want to make her will — she never liked the idea of making a will; and she wanted the money to be a surprise, and so she took this way.”

“And — and,” went on Susan, “you know I had dear Aunt Lavinia's desk, and — I — looked — and there was the money — a little over $500; and it is enough to pay the back taxes and interest, and we can keep the house; and — and I am so thankful that dear Aunt Lavinia's last letter was lost until now!”