The long drought ended with a cloud-burst in the western mountains, which tore a new slide down the flank of Lynx Peak and scarred the Gilded Dome from summit to base. Then storm followed storm, bursting through the mountain-notch and sweeping the river into the meadows, where the haycocks were already afloat, and the gaunt mountain cattle floundered bellowing.
The stage from White Lake arrived at noon with the mail, and the driver walked into the post-office and slammed the soaking mail-sack on the floor.
“Gracious!” said the little postmistress.
“Yes’m,” said the stage-driver, irrelevantly; “them letters is wetter an’ I’m madder ‘n a swimmin’ shanghai! Upsot? Yes’m–in Snow Brook. Road’s awash, meadders is flooded, an’ the water’s a-swashin’ an’ a-sloshin’ in them there galoshes.” He waved one foot about carelessly, scattering muddy spray, then balanced himself alternately on heels and toes to hear the water wheeze in his drenched boots.
“There must be a hole in the mail-pouch,” said the postmistress, in gentle distress.
There certainly was. The letters were soaked; the wrappers on newspaper and parcel had become detached; the interior of the government’s mail-pouch resembled the preliminary stages of a paper-pulp vat. But the postmistress worked so diligently among the debris that by one o’clock she had sorted and placed in separate numbered boxes every letter, newspaper, and parcel–save one.
That one was a letter directed to
“James Helm, Esq.
“Nauvoo, via White Lake.”
and it was so wet and the gum that sealed it was so nearly dissolved that the postmistress decided to place it between blotters, pile two volumes of government agricultural reports on it, and leave it until dry.
One by one the population of Nauvoo came dripping into the post-office for the mail, then slopped out into the storm again, umbrellas couched in the teeth of the wind. But James Helm did not come for his letter.
The postmistress sat alone in her office and looked out into her garden. It was a very wet garden; the hollyhocks still raised their flowered spikes in the air; the nasturtiums, the verbenas, and the pansies were beaten down and lying prone in muddy puddles. She wondered whether they would ever raise their heads again–those delicate flower faces that she knew so well, her only friends in Nauvoo.
Through the long drought she had tended them, ministering to their thirst, protecting them from their enemies the weeds, and from the great, fuzzy, brown-and-yellow caterpillars that travelled over the fences, guided by instinct and a raging appetite. Now each frail flower had laid its slender length along the earth, and the little postmistress watched them wistfully from her rain-stained window.
She had expected to part with her flowers; she was going away forever in a few days–somewhere–she was not yet quite certain where. But now that her flowers lay prone, bruised and broken, the idea of leaving them behind her distressed her sorely.
She picked up her crutch and walked to the door. It was no use; the rain warned her back. She sat down again by the window to watch her wounded flowers.
There was something else that distressed her too, although the paradox of parting from a person she had never met ought to have appealed to her sense of humor. But she did not think of that; never, since she had been postmistress in Nauvoo, had she spoken one word to James Helm, nor had he ever spoken to her. He had a key to his letter-box; he always came towards evening.
It was exactly a year ago to-day that Helm came to Nauvoo–a silent, pallid young fellow with unresponsive eyes and the bearing of a gentleman. He was cordially detested in Nauvoo. For a year she had watched him enter the post-office, unlock his letter-box, swing on his heel and walk away, with never a glance at her nor a sign of recognition to any of the village people who might be there. She heard people exchange uncomplimentary opinions concerning him; she heard him sneered at, denounced, slandered.