A Correspondence and A Climax
by Lucy Maud Montgomery
At sunset Sidney hurried to her room to take off the soiled and faded
cotton dress she had worn while milking. She had milked eight cows and
pumped water for the milk-cans afterward in the fag-end of a hot
summer day. She did that every night, but tonight she had hurried more
than usual because she wanted to get her letter written before the
early farm bedtime. She had been thinking it out while she milked the
cows in the stuffy little pen behind the barn. This monthly letter was
the only pleasure and stimulant in her life. Existence would have
been, so Sidney thought, a dreary, unbearable blank without it. She
cast aside her milking-dress with a thrill of distaste that tingled to
her rosy fingertips. As she slipped into her blue-print afternoon
dress her aunt called to her from below. Sidney ran out to the dark
little entry and leaned over the stair railing. Below in the kitchen
there was a hubbub of laughing, crying, quarrelling children, and a
reek of bad tobacco smoke drifted up to the girl's disgusted nostrils.
Aunt Jane was standing at the foot of the stairs with a lamp in one
hand and a year-old baby clinging to the other. She was a big
shapeless woman with a round good-natured face—cheerful and vulgar as
a sunflower was Aunt Jane at all times and occasions.
"I want to run over and see how Mrs. Brixby is this evening, Siddy,
and you must take care of the baby till I get back."
Sidney sighed and went downstairs for the baby. It never would have
occurred to her to protest or be petulant about it. She had all her
aunt's sweetness of disposition, if she resembled her in nothing else.
She had not grumbled because she had to rise at four that morning, get
breakfast, milk the cows, bake bread, prepare seven children for
school, get dinner, preserve twenty quarts of strawberries, get tea,
and milk the cows again. All her days were alike as far as hard work
and dullness went, but she accepted them cheerfully and
uncomplainingly. But she did resent having to look after the baby when
she wanted to write her letter.
She carried the baby to her room, spread a quilt on the floor for him
to sit on, and gave him a box of empty spools to play with.
Fortunately he was a phlegmatic infant, fond of staying in one place,
and not given to roaming about in search of adventures; but Sidney
knew she would have to keep an eye on him, and it would be distracting
to literary effort.
She got out her box of paper and sat down by the little table at the
window with a small kerosene lamp at her elbow. The room was small—a
mere box above the kitchen which Sidney shared with two small cousins.
Her bed and the cot where the little girls slept filled up almost all
the available space. The furniture was poor, but everything was
neat—it was the only neat room in the house, indeed, for tidiness was
no besetting virtue of Aunt Jane's.
Opposite Sidney was a small muslined and befrilled toilet-table, above
which hung an eight-by-six-inch mirror, in which Sidney saw herself
reflected as she devoutly hoped other people did not see her. Just at
that particular angle one eye appeared to be as large as an orange,
while the other was the size of a pea, and the mouth zigzagged from
ear to ear. Sidney hated that mirror as virulently as she could hate
anything. It seemed to her to typify all that was unlovely in her
life. The mirror of existence into which her fresh young soul had
looked for twenty years gave back to her wistful gaze just such
distortions of fair hopes and ideals.
Half of the little table by which she sat was piled high with
books—old books, evidently well read and well-bred books, classics of
fiction and verse every one of them, and all bearing on the flyleaf
the name of Sidney Richmond, thereby meaning not the girl at the
table, but her college-bred young father who had died the day before
she was born. Her mother had died the day after, and Sidney thereupon
had come into the hands of good Aunt Jane, with those books for her
dowry, since nothing else was left after the expenses of the double
funeral had been paid.
One of the books had Sidney Richmond's name printed on the title-page
instead of written on the flyleaf. It was a thick little volume of
poems, published in his college days—musical, unsubstantial, pretty
little poems, every one of which the girl Sidney loved and knew by
Sidney dropped her pointed chin in her hands and looked dreamily out
into the moonlit night, while she thought her letter out a little more
fully before beginning to write. Her big brown eyes were full of
wistfulness and romance; for Sidney was romantic, albeit a faithful
and understanding acquaintance with her father's books had given to
her romance refinement and reason, and the delicacy of her own nature
had imparted to it a self-respecting bias.
Presently she began to write, with a flush of real excitement on her
face. In the middle of things the baby choked on a small twist spool
and Sidney had to catch him up by the heels and hold him head downward
until the trouble was ejected. Then she had to soothe him, and finally
write the rest of her letter holding him on one arm and protecting the
epistle from the grabs of his sticky little fingers. It was certainly
letter-writing under difficulties, but Sidney seemed to deal with them
mechanically. Her soul and understanding were elsewhere.
Four years before, when Sidney was sixteen, still calling herself a
schoolgirl by reason of the fact that she could be spared to attend
school four months in the winter when work was slack, she had been
much interested in the "Maple Leaf" department of the Montreal weekly
her uncle took. It was a page given over to youthful Canadians and
filled with their contributions in the way of letters, verses, and
prize essays. Noms de plume were signed to these, badges were sent to
those who joined the Maple Leaf Club, and a general delightful sense
of mystery pervaded the department.
Often a letter concluded with a request to the club members to
correspond with the writer. One such request went from Sidney under
the pen-name of "Ellen Douglas." The girl was lonely in Plainfield;
she had no companions or associates such as she cared for; the Maple
Leaf Club represented all that her life held of outward interest, and
she longed for something more.
Only one answer came to "Ellen Douglas," and that was forwarded to her
by the long-suffering editor of "The Maple Leaf." It was from John
Lincoln of the Bar N Ranch, Alberta. He wrote that, although his age
debarred him from membership in the club (he was twenty, and the limit
was eighteen), he read the letters of the department with much
interest, and often had thought of answering some of the requests for
correspondents. He never had done so, but "Ellen Douglas's" letter was
so interesting that he had decided to write to her. Would she be kind
enough to correspond with him? Life on the Bar N, ten miles from the
outposts of civilization, was lonely. He was two years out from the
east, and had not yet forgotten to be homesick at times.
Sidney liked the letter and answered it. Since then they had written
to each other regularly. There was nothing sentimental, hinted at or
implied, in the correspondence. Whatever the faults of Sidney's
romantic visions were, they did not tend to precocious flirtation. The
Plainfield boys, attracted by her beauty and repelled by her
indifference and aloofness, could have told that. She never expected
to meet John Lincoln, nor did she wish to do so. In the correspondence
itself she found her pleasure.
John Lincoln wrote breezy accounts of ranch life and adventures on the
far western plains, so alien and remote from snug, humdrum Plainfield
life that Sidney always had the sensation of crossing a gulf when she
opened a letter from the Bar N. As for Sidney's own letter, this is
the way it read as she wrote it:
"The Evergreens," Plainfield.
Dear Mr. Lincoln:
The very best letter I can write in the half-hour before the
carriage will be at the door to take me to Mrs. Braddon's
dance shall be yours tonight. I am sitting here in the library
arrayed in my smartest, newest, whitest, silkiest gown, with a
string of pearls which Uncle James gave me today about my
throat—the dear, glistening, sheeny things! And I am looking
forward to the "dances and delight" of the evening with keen
You asked me in your last letter if I did not sometimes grow
weary of my endless round of dances and dinners and social
functions. No, no, never! I enjoy every one of them, every
minute of them. I love life and its bloom and brilliancy; I
love meeting new people; I love the ripple of music, the hum
of laughter and conversation. Every morning when I awaken the
new day seems to me to be a good fairy who will bring me some
beautiful gift of joy.
The gift she gave me today was my sunset gallop on my grey
mare Lady. The thrill of it is in my veins yet. I distanced
the others who rode with me and led the homeward canter alone,
rocking along a dark, gleaming road, shadowy with tall firs
and pines, whose balsam made all the air resinous around me.
Before me was a long valley filled with purple dusk, and
beyond it meadows of sunset and great lakes of saffron and
rose where a soul might lose itself in colour. On my right was
the harbour, silvered over with a rising moon. Oh, it was all
glorious—the clear air with its salt-sea tang, the aroma of
the pines, the laughter of my friends behind me, the spring
and rhythm of Lady's grey satin body beneath me! I wanted to
ride on so forever, straight into the heart of the sunset.
Then home and to dinner. We have a houseful of guests at
present—one of them an old statesman with a massive silver
head, and eyes that have looked into people's thoughts so long
that you have an uncanny feeling that they can see right
through your soul and read motives you dare not avow even to
yourself. I was terribly in awe of him at first, but when I
got acquainted with him I found him charming. He is not above
talking delightful nonsense even to a girl. I sat by him at
dinner, and he talked to me—not nonsense, either, this time.
He told me of his political contests and diplomatic battles;
he was wise and witty and whimsical. I felt as if I were
drinking some rare, stimulating mental wine. What a privilege
it is to meet such men and take a peep through their wise eyes
at the fascinating game of empire-building!
I met another clever man a few evenings ago. A lot of us went
for a sail on the harbour. Mrs. Braddon's house party came
too. We had three big white boats that skimmed down the
moonlit channel like great white sea birds. There was another
boat far across the harbour, and the people in it were
singing. The music drifted over the water to us, so sad and
sweet and beguiling that I could have cried for very pleasure.
One of Mrs. Braddon's guests said to me:
"That is the soul of music with all its sense and earthliness
I hadn't thought about him before—I hadn't even caught his
name in the general introduction. He was a tall, slight man,
with a worn, sensitive face and iron-grey hair—a quiet man
who hadn't laughed or talked. But he began to talk to me then,
and I forgot all about the others. I never had listened to
anybody in the least like him. He talked of books and music,
of art and travel. He had been all over the world, and had
seen everything everybody else had seen and everything they
hadn't too, I think. I seemed to be looking into an enchanted
mirror where all my own dreams and ideals were reflected back
to me, but made, oh, so much more beautiful!
On my way home after the Braddon people had left us somebody
asked me how I liked Paul Moore! The man I had been talking
with was Paul Moore, the great novelist! I was almost glad I
hadn't known it while he was talking to me—I should have been
too awed and reverential to have really enjoyed his
conversation. As it was, I had contradicted him twice, and he
had laughed and liked it. But his books will always have a new
meaning to me henceforth, through the insight he himself has
It is such meetings as these that give life its sparkle for
me. But much of its abiding sweetness comes from my friendship
with Margaret Raleigh. You will be weary of my rhapsodies over
her. But she is such a rare and wonderful woman; much older
then I am, but so young in heart and soul and freshness of
feeling! She is to me mother and sister and wise,
clear-sighted friend. To her I go with all my perplexities and
hopes and triumphs. She has sympathy and understanding for my
every mood. I love life so much for giving me such a
This morning I wakened at dawn and stole away to the shore
before anyone else was up. I had a delightful run-away. The
long, low-lying meadows between "The Evergreens" and the shore
were dewy and fresh in that first light, that was as fine and
purely tinted as the heart of one of my white roses. On the
beach the water was purring in little blue ripples, and, oh,
the sunrise out there beyond the harbour! All the eastern
Heaven was abloom with it. And there was a wind that came
dancing and whistling up the channel to replace the beautiful
silence with a music more beautiful still.
The rest of the folks were just coming downstairs when I got
back to breakfast. They were all yawny, and some were grumpy,
but I had washed my being in the sunrise and felt as
blithesome as the day. Oh, life is so good to live!
Tomorrow Uncle James's new vessel, the White Lady, is to be
launched. We are going to make a festive occasion of it, and I
am to christen her with a bottle of cobwebby old wine.
But I hear the carriage, and Aunt Jane is calling me. I had a
great deal more to say—about your letter, your big "round-up"
and your tribulations with your Chinese cook—but I've only
time now to say goodbye. You wish me a lovely time at the
dance and a full programme, don't you?
Aunt Jane came home presently and carried away her sleeping baby.
Sidney said her prayers, went to bed, and slept soundly and serenely.
She mailed her letter the next day, and a month later an answer came.
Sidney read it as soon as she left the post office, and walked the
rest of the way home as in a nightmare, staring straight ahead of her
with wide-open, unseeing brown eyes.
John Lincoln's letter was short, but the pertinent paragraph of it
burned itself into Sidney's brain. He wrote:
I am going east for a visit. It is six years since I was home,
and it seems like three times six. I shall go by the C.P.R.,
which passes through Plainfield, and I mean to stop off for a
day. You will let me call and see you, won't you? I shall have
to take your permission for granted, as I shall be gone before
a letter from you can reach the Bar N. I leave for the east in
five days, and shall look forward to our meeting with all
possible interest and pleasure.
Sidney did not sleep that night, but tossed restlessly about or cried
in her pillow. She was so pallid and hollow-eyed the next morning that
Aunt Jane noticed it, and asked her what the matter was.
"Nothing," said Sidney sharply. Sidney had never spoken sharply to her
aunt before. The good woman shook her head. She was afraid the child
was "taking something."
"Don't do much today, Siddy," she said kindly. "Just lie around and
take it easy till you get rested up. I'll fix you a dose of quinine."
Sidney refused to lie around and take it easy. She swallowed the
quinine meekly enough, but she worked fiercely all day, hunting out
superfluous tasks to do. That night she slept the sleep of exhaustion,
but her dreams were unenviable and the awakening was terrible.
Any day, any hour, might bring John Lincoln to Plainfield. What should
she do? Hide from him? Refuse to see him? But he would find out the
truth just the same; she would lose his friendships and respect just
as surely. Sidney trod the way of the transgressor, and found that its
thorns pierced to bone and marrow. Everything had come to an
end—nothing was left to her! In the untried recklessness of twenty
untempered years she wished she could die before John Lincoln came to
Plainfield. The eyes of youth could not see how she could possibly
Some days later a young man stepped from the C.P.R. train at
Plainfield station and found his way to the one small hotel the place
boasted. After getting his supper he asked the proprietor if he could
direct him to "The Evergreens."
Caleb Williams looked at his guest in bewilderment. "Never heerd o'
such a place," he said.
"It is the name of Mr. Conway's estate—Mr. James Conway," explained
"Oh, Jim Conway's place!" said Caleb. "Didn't know that was what he
called it. Sartin I kin tell you whar' to find it. You see that road
out thar'? Well, just follow it straight along for a mile and a half
till you come to a blacksmith's forge. Jim Conway's house is just this
side of it on the right—back from the road a smart piece and no other
handy. You can't mistake it."
John Lincoln did not expect to mistake it, once he found it; he knew
by heart what it appeared like from Sidney's description: an old
stately mansion of mellowed brick, covered with ivy and set back from
the highway amid fine ancestral trees, with a pine-grove behind it, a
river to the left, and a harbour beyond.
He strode along the road in the warm, ruddy sunshine of early evening.
It was not a bad-looking road at all; the farmsteads sprinkled along
it were for the most part snug and wholesome enough; yet somehow it
was different from what he had expected it to be. And there was no
harbour or glimpse of distant sea visible. Had the hotel-keeper made a
mistake? Perhaps he had meant some other James Conway.
Presently he found himself before the blacksmith's forge. Beside it
was a rickety, unpainted gate opening into a snake-fenced lane
feathered here and there with scrubby little spruces. It ran down a
bare hill, crossed a little ravine full of young white-stemmed
birches, and up another bare hill to an equally bare crest where a
farmhouse was perched—a farmhouse painted a stark, staring yellow and
the ugliest thing in farmhouses that John Lincoln had ever seen, even
among the log shacks of the west. He knew now that he had been
misdirected, but as there seemed to be nobody about the forge he
concluded that he had better go to the yellow house and inquire
within. He passed down the lane and over the little rustic bridge that
spanned the brook. Just beyond was another home-made gate of poles.
Lincoln opened it, or rather he had his hand on the hasp of twisted
withes which secured it, when he was suddenly arrested by the
apparition of a girl, who flashed around the curve of young birch
beyond and stood before him with panting breath and quivering lips.
"I beg your pardon," said John Lincoln courteously, dropping the gate
and lifting his hat. "I am looking for the house of Mr. James
Conway—'The Evergreens.' Can you direct me to it?"
"That is Mr. James Conway's house," said the girl, with the tragic air
and tone of one driven to desperation and an impatient gesture of her
hand toward the yellow nightmare above them.
"I don't think he can be the one I mean," said Lincoln perplexedly.
"The man I am thinking of has a niece, Miss Richmond."
"There is no other James Conway in Plainfield," said the girl. "This
is his place—nobody calls it 'The Evergreens' but myself. I am Sidney
For a moment they looked at each other across the gate, sheer
amazement and bewilderment holding John Lincoln mute. Sidney, burning
with shame, saw that this stranger was exceedingly good to look
upon—tall, clean-limbed, broad-shouldered, with clear-cut bronzed
features and a chin and eyes that would have done honour to any man.
John Lincoln, among all his confused sensations, was aware that this
slim, agitated young creature before him was the loveliest thing he
ever had seen, so lithe was her figure, so glossy and dark and silken
her bare, wind-ruffled hair, so big and brown and appealing her eyes,
so delicately oval her flushed cheeks. He felt that she was frightened
and in trouble, and he wanted to comfort and reassure her. But how
could she be Sidney Richmond?
"I don't understand," he said perplexedly.
"Oh!" Sidney threw out her hands in a burst of passionate protest.
"No, and you never will understand—I can't make you understand."
"I don't understand," said John Lincoln again. "Can you be Sidney
Richmond—the Sidney Richmond who has written to me for four years?"
"Then, those letters—"
"Were all lies," said Sidney bluntly and desperately. "There was
nothing true in them—nothing at all. This is my home. We are poor.
Everything I told you about it and my life was just imagination."
"Then why did you write them?" he asked blankly. "Why did you deceive
"Oh, I didn't mean to deceive you! I never thought of such a thing.
When you asked me to write to you I wanted to, but I didn't know what
to write about to a stranger. I just couldn't write you about my life
here, not because it was hard, but it was so ugly and empty. So I
wrote instead of the life I wanted to live—the life I did live in
imagination. And when once I had begun, I had to keep it up. I found
it so fascinating, too! Those letters made that other life seem real
to me. I never expected to meet you. These last four days since your
letter came have been dreadful to me. Oh, please go away and forgive
me if you can! I know I can never make you understand how it came
Sidney turned away and hid her burning face against the cool white
bark of the birch tree behind her. It was worse than she had even
thought it would be. He was so handsome, so manly, so earnest-eyed!
Oh, what a friend to lose!
John Lincoln opened the gate and went up to her. There was a great
tenderness in his face, mingled with a little kindly, friendly
"Please don't distress yourself so, Sidney," he said, unconsciously
using her Christian name. "I think I do understand. I'm not such a
dull fellow as you take me for. After all, those letters were
true—or, rather, there was truth in them. You revealed yourself more
faithfully in them than if you had written truly about your narrow
Sidney turned her flushed face and wet eyes slowly toward him, a
little smile struggling out amid the clouds of woe. This young man was
certainly good at understanding. "You—you'll forgive me then?" she
"Yes, if there is anything to forgive. And for my own part, I am glad
you are not what I have always thought you were. If I had come here
and found you what I expected, living in such a home as I expected, I
never could have told you or even thought of telling you what you have
come to mean to me in these lonely years during which your letters
have been the things most eagerly looked forward to. I should have
come this evening and spent an hour or so with you, and then have gone
away on the train tomorrow morning, and that would have been all.
"But I find instead just a dreamy romantic little girl, much like my
sisters at home, except that she is a great deal cleverer. And as a
result I mean to stay a week at Plainfield and come to see you every
day, if you will let me. And on my way back to the Bar N I mean to
stop off at Plainfield again for another week, and then I shall tell
you something more—something it would be a little too bold to say
now, perhaps, although I could say it just as well and truly. All this
if I may. May I, Sidney?"
He bent forward and looked earnestly into her face. Sidney felt a
new, curious, inexplicable thrill at her heart. "Oh, yes.—I suppose
so," she said shyly.
"Now, take me up to the house and introduce me to your Aunt Jane,"
said John Lincoln in satisfied tone.