by Kate Chopin
She had given orders that she wished to
remain undisturbed and moreover had locked the doors of her
The house was very still. The rain was
falling steadily from a leaden sky in which there was no
gleam, no rift, no promise. A generous wood fire had been
lighted in the ample fireplace and it brightened and
illumined the luxurious apartment to its furthermost corner.
From some remote nook of her writing desk the
woman took a thick bundle of letters, bound tightly together
with strong, coarse twine, and placed it upon the table in
the center of the room.
For weeks she had been schooling herself for
what she was about to do. There was a strong deliberation
in the lines of her long, thin sensitive face; her hands,
too, were long and delicate and blue-veined.
With a pair of scissors she snapped the cord
binding the letters together. Thus released the ones which
were top-most slid down to the table and she, with a quick
movement thrust her fingers among them, scattering and
turning them over till they quite covered the broad surface
of the table.
Before her were envelopes of various sizes
and shapes, all of them addressed in the handwriting of one
man and one woman. He had sent her letters all back to her
one day when, sick with dread of possibilities, she had
asked to have them returned. She had meant, then, to
destroy them all, his and her own. That was four years ago,
and she had been feeding upon them ever since--they had
sustained her, she believed, and kept her spirit from
But now the days had come when the
premonition of danger could no longer remain unheeded. She
knew that before many months were past she would have to
part from her treasure, leaving it unguarded. She shrank
from inflicting the pain, the anguish which the discovery of
those letters would bring to others--to one, above all, who
was near to her, and whose tenderness and years of devotion
had made him, in a manner, dear to her.
She calmly selected a letter at random from
the pile and cast it into the roaring fire. A second one
followed almost as calmly, with the third her hand began to
tremble; when, in a sudden paroxysm she cast a fourth, a
fifth, and a sixth into the flames in breathless succession.
Then she stopped and began to pant--for she
was far from strong, and she stayed staring into the fire
with pained and savage eyes. Oh, what had she done! What
had she not done! With feverish apprehension she began to
search among the letters before her. Which of them had she
so ruthlessly, so cruelly put out of her existence? Heaven
grant, not the first, that very first one written before
they had learned, or dared to say to each other "I love
you." No, no; there it was, safe enough. She laughed
with pleasure, and held it to her lips. But what if that
other most precious and most imprudent one were missing! in
which every word of untempered passion had long ago eaten
its way into her brain; and which stirred her still to-day,
as it had done a hundred times before when she thought of
it. She crushed it between her palms when she found it.
She kissed it again and again. With her sharp white teeth
she tore the far corner from the letter, where the name was
written; she bit the torn scrap and tasted it between her
lips and upon her tongue like some god-given morsel.
What unbounded thankfulness she felt at not
having destroyed them all! How desolate and empty would
have been her remaining days without them; with only her
thoughts, illusive thoughts that she could not hold in her
hands and press, as she did these, to her cheeks and her
This man had changed the water in her veins
to wine, whose taste had brought delirium to both of them.
It was all one and past now, save for these letters that she
held encircled in her arms. She stayed breathing softly and
contentedly, with the hectic cheek resting upon them.
She was thinking; thinking of a way to keep
them without possible ultimate injury to that other one whom
they would stab more cruelly than keen knife blades.
At last she found the way. It was a way that
frightened and bewildered her to think of at first, but she
had reached it by deduction too sure to admit of doubt. She
meant, of course, to destroy them herself before the end
came. But how does the end come and when? Who may tell?
She would guard against the possibility of accident by
leaving them in charge of the very one who, above all,
should be spared a knowledge of their contents.
She roused herself from the stupor of thought
and gathered the scattered letters once more together,
binding them again with the tough twine. She wrapped the
compact bundle in a thick sheet of white polished paper.
Then she wrote in ink upon the back of it, in large, firm
"I leave this package to the care of my
husband. With perfect faith in his loyalty and his love, I
ask him to destroy it unopened."
It was not sealed; only a bit of string held
the wrapper, which she could remove and replace at will
whenever the humor came to her to pass an hour in some
intoxicating dream of the days when she felt she had lived.
If he had come upon that bundle of letters in
the first flush of his poignant sorrow there would not have
been an instant's hesitancy. To destroy it promptly and
without question would have seemed a welcome expression of
devotion--a way of reaching her, of crying out his love to
her while the world was still filled with the illusion of
her presence. But months had passed since that spring day
when they had found her stretched upon the floor, clutching
the key of her writing desk, which she appeared to have been
attempting to reach when death overtook her.
The day was much like that day a year ago
when the leaves were falling and the rain pouring steadily
from a leaden sky which held no gleam, no promise. He had
happened accidentally upon the package in that remote nook
of her desk And just as she herself had done a year ago, he
carried it to the table and laid it down there, standing,
staring with puzzled eyes at the message which confronted
"I leave this package to the care of my husband.
With perfect faith in his loyalty and his love, I ask
him to destroy it unopened."
She had made no mistake; every line of his
face--no longer young--spoke loyalty and honesty, and his
eyes were as faithful as a dog's and as loving. He was a
tall, powerful man, standing there in the firelight, with
shoulders that stooped a little, and hair that was growing
somewhat thin and gray, and a face that was distinguished,
and must have been handsome when he smiled. But he was
slow. "Destroy it unopened," he re-read, half
aloud, "but why unopened?"
He took the package again in his hands, and
turning it about and feeling it, discovered that it was
composed of many letters tightly packed together.
So here were letters which she was asking him
to destroy unopened. She had never seemed in her lifetime
to have had a secret from him. He knew her to have been
cold and passionless, but true, and watchful of his comfort
and his happiness. Might he not be holding in his hands the
secret of some other one, which had been confided to her and
which she had promised to guard? But, no, she would have
indicated the fact by some additional word or line. The
secret was her own, something contained in these letters,
and she wanted it to die with her.
If he could have thought of her as on some
distant shadowy shore waiting for him throughout the years
with outstretched hands to come and join her again, he would
not have hesitated. With hopeful confidence he would have
thought "in that blessed meeting-time, soul to soul,
she will tell me all; till then I can wait and trust."
But he could not think of her in any far-off paradise
awaiting him. He felt that there was no smallest part of
her anywhere in the universe, more than there had been
before she was born into the world. But she had embodied
herself with terrible significance in an intangible wish,
uttered when life still coursed through her veins; knowing
that it would reach him when the annihilation of death was
between them, but uttered with all confidence in its power
and potency. He was moved by the splendid daring, the
magnificence of the act, which at the same time exalted him
and lifted him above the head of common mortals.
What secret save one could a woman choose to
have die with her? As quickly as the suggestion came to his
mind, so swiftly did the man-instinct of possession creep
into his blood. His fingers cramped about the package in
his hands, and he sank into a chair beside the table. The
agonizing suspicion that perhaps another hand shared with
him her thoughts, her affections, her life, deprived him for
a swift instant of honor and reason. He thrust the end of
his strong thumb beneath the string which, with a single
turn would have yielded--"with perfect faith in your
loyalty and your love." It was not the written
characters addressing themselves to the eye; it was like a
voice speaking to his soul. With a tremor of anguish he
bowed his head down upon the letters.
He had once seen a clairvoyant hold a letter
to his forehead and purport in so doing to discover its
contents. He wondered for a wild moment if such a gift, for
force of wishing it, might not come to him. But he was only
conscious of the smooth surface of the paper, cold against
his brow, like the touch of a dead woman's hand.
A half-hour passed before he lifted his head.
An unspeakable conflict had raged within him, but his
loyalty and his love had conquered. His face was pale and
deep-lined with suffering, but there was no more hesitancy
to be seen there.
He did not for a moment think of casting the
thick package into the flames to be licked by the fiery
tongues, and charred and half-revealed to his eyes. That
was not what she meant. He arose, and taking a heavy bronze
paperweight from the table, bound it securely to the
package. He walked to the window and looked out into the
street below. Darkness had come, and it was still raining.
He could hear the rain dashing against the window-panes, and
could see it falling through the dull yellow rim of light
cast by the lighted street lamp.
He prepared himself to go out, and when quite
ready to leave the house thrust the weighted package into
the deep pocket of his top-coat.
He did not hurry along the street as most
people were doing at that hour, but walked with a long,
slow, deliberate step, not seeming to mind the penetrating
chill and rain driving into his face despite the shelter of
His dwelling was not far removed from the
business section of the city; and it was not a great while
before he found himself at the entrance of the bridge that
spanned the river--the deep, broad, swift, black river
dividing two States. He walked on and out to the very
centre of the structure. The wind was blowing fiercely and
keenly. The darkness where he stood was impenetrable. The
thousands of lights in the city he had left seemed like all
the stars of heaven massed together, sinking into some
distant mysterious horizon, leaving him alone in a black,
He drew the package from his pocket and
leaning as far as he could over the broad stone rail of the
bridge, cast it from him into the river. It fell straight
and swiftly from his hand. He could not follow it's descent
through the darkness, nor hear its dip into the water far
below. It vanished silently; seemingly into some inky
unfathomable space. He felt as if he were flinging it back
to her in that unknown world whither she had gone.
An hour or two later he sat at his table in
the company of several men whom he had invited that day to
dine with him. A weight had settled upon his spirit, a
conviction, a certitude that there could be but one secret
which a woman would choose to have die with her. This one
thought was possessing him, it occupied his brain, keeping
it nimble and alert with suspicion. It clutched his heart,
making every breath of existence a fresh moment of pain.
The men about him were no longer the friends
of yesterday; in each one he discerned a possible enemy. He
attended absently to their talk. He was remembering how she
had conducted herself toward this one and that one; striving
to recall conversations, subtleties of facial expression
that might have meant what he did not suspect at the moment,
shades of meaning in words that had seemed the ordinary
interchange of social amenities.
He led the conversation to the subject of
women, probing these men for their opinions and experiences.
There was not one but claimed some infallible power to
command the affections of any woman whom his fancy might
select. He had heard the empty boast before from the same
group and had always met it with good-humored contempt. But
to-night every flagrant, inane utterance was charged with a
new meaning, revealing possibilities that, he had hitherto
never taken into account.
He was glad when they were gone. He was
eager to be alone, not from any desire or intention to
sleep. He was impatient to regain her room, that room in
which she had lived a large portion of her life, and where
he had found those letters. There must surely be more of
them somewhere, he thought; some forgotten scrap, some
written thought or expression lying unguarded by an
At the hour when he usually retired for the
night he sat himself down before her writing desk and began
the search of drawers, slides, pigeonholes, nooks and
corners. He did not leave a scrap of anything unread. Many
of the letters which he found were old: some he had read
before; others were new to him. But in none did he find the
faintest evidence that his wife had not been the true and
loyal woman he had always believed her to be. The night was
nearly spent before the fruitless search ended. The brief,
troubled sleep which he snatched before his hour for rising
was freighted with feverish, grotesque dreams, through all
of which he could hear and could see dimly the dark river
rushing by, carrying away his heart, his ambitions, his
But it was not alone in letters that women
betrayed their emotions, he thought. Often he had known
them, especially when in love, to mark fugitive, sentimental
passages in books of verse or prose, thus expressing and
revealing their own hidden thought. Might she not have done
Then began a second and far more exhausting
and arduous quest than the first, turning, page by page, the
volumes that crowded her room--books of fiction, poetry,
philosophy. She had read them all; but nowhere, by the
shadow of a sign, could he find that the author had echoed
the secret of her existence--the secret which he had held in
his hands and had cast into the river.
He began cautiously and gradually to question
this one and that one, striving to learn by indirect ways
what each had thought of her. Foremost he learned she had
been unsympathetic because of her coldness of manner. One
had admired her intellect; another her accomplishments; a
third had thought her beautiful before disease claimed her,
regretting, however, that her beauty had lacked warmth of
color and expression. She was praised by some for
gentleness and kindness, and by others for cleverness and
tact. Oh, it was useless to try to discover anything from
men! he might have known. It was women who would talk of
what they knew.
They did talk, unreservedly. Most of them
had loved her; those who had not had held her in respect and
And yet, and yet, "there is but one secret
which a woman would choose to have die with her," was the
thought which continued to haunt him and deprive him of rest.
Days and nights of uncertainty began slowly to unnerve him and
to torture him. An assurance of the worst that he dreaded
would have offered him peace most welcome, even at the price
It seemed no longer of any moment to him that
men should come and go; and fall or rise in the world; and wed
and die. It did not signify if money came to him by a turn of
chance or eluded him. Empty and meaningless seemed to him all
devices which the world offers for man's entertainment. The
food and the drink set before him had lost their flavor. He
did not longer know or care if the sun shone or the clouds
lowered about him. A cruel hazard had struck him there where
he was weakest, shattering his whole being, leaving him with
but one wish in his soul, one gnawing desire, to know the
mystery which he had held in his hands and had cast into the
One night when there were no stars shining he
wandered, restless, upon the streets. He no longer sought to
know from men and women what they dared not or could not tell
him. Only the river knew. He went and stood again upon the
bridge where he had stood many an hour since that night when
the darkness then had closed around him and engulfed his
Only the river knew. It babbled, and he
listened to it, and it told him nothing, but it promised all.
He could hear it promising him with caressing voice, peace and
sweet repose. He could hear the sweep, the song of the water
A moment more and he had gone to seek her, and
to join her and her secret thought in the immeasurable rest.