The Letters by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Just before the letter was brought to me that evening I was watching
the red November sunset from the library window. It was a stormy,
unrestful sunset, gleaming angrily through the dark fir boughs that
were now and again tossed suddenly and distressfully in a fitful gust
of wind. Below, in the garden, it was quite dark, and I could only see
dimly the dead leaves that were whirling and dancing uncannily over
the roseless paths. The poor dead leaves—yet not quite dead! There
was still enough unquiet life left in them to make them restless and
forlorn. They hearkened yet to every call of the wind, who cared for
them no longer but only played freakishly with them and broke their
rest. I felt sorry for the leaves as I watched them in that dull,
weird twilight, and angry—in a petulant fashion that almost made me
laugh—with the wind that would not leave them in peace. Why should
they—and I—be vexed with these transient breaths of desire for a
life that had passed us by?
I was in the grip of a bitter loneliness that evening—so bitter and
so insistent that I felt I could not face the future at all, even with
such poor fragments of courage as I had gathered about me after
Father's death, hoping that they would, at least, suffice for my
endurance, if not for my content. But now they fell away from me at
sight of the emptiness of life.
The emptiness! Ah, it was from that I shrank. I could have faced pain
and anxiety and heartbreak undauntedly, but I could not face that
terrible, yawning, barren emptiness. I put my hands over my eyes to
shut it out, but it pressed in upon my consciousness insistently, and
would not be ignored longer.
The moment when a woman realizes that she has nothing to live
for—neither love nor purpose nor duty—holds for her the bitterness
of death. She is a brave woman indeed who can look upon such a
prospect unquailingly, and I was not brave. I was weak and timid. Had
not Father often laughed mockingly at me because of it?
It was three weeks since Father had died—my proud, handsome,
unrelenting old father, whom I had loved so intensely and who had
never loved me. I had always accepted this fact unresentfully and
unquestioningly, but it had steeped my whole life in its tincture of
bitterness. Father had never forgiven me for two things. I had cost my
mother's life and I was not a son to perpetuate the old name and carry
on the family feud with the Frasers.
I was a very lonely child, with no playmates or companions of any
sort, and my girlhood was lonelier still. The only passion in my life
was my love for my father. I would have done and suffered anything to
win his affection in return. But all I ever did win was an amused
tolerance—and I was grateful for that—almost content. It was much to
have something to love and be permitted to love it.
If I had been a beautiful and spirited girl I think Father might have
loved me, but I was neither. At first I did not think or care about my
lack of beauty; then one day I was alone in the beech wood; I was
trying to disentangle my skirt which had caught on some thorny
underbrush. A young man came around the curve of the path and, seeing
my predicament, bent with murmured apology to help me. He had to kneel
to do it, and I saw a ray of sunshine falling through the beeches
above us strike like a lance of light athwart the thick brown hair
that pushed out from under his cap. Before I thought I put out my hand
and touched it softly, then I blushed crimson with shame over what I
had done. But he did not know—he never knew.
When he had released my dress he rose and our eyes met for a moment as
I timidly thanked him. I saw that he was good to look upon—tall and
straight, with broad, stalwart shoulders and a dark, clean-cut face.
He had a firm, sensitive mouth and kindly, pleasant, dark blue eyes. I
never quite forgot the look in those eyes. It made my heart beat
strangely, but it was only for a moment, and the next he had lifted
his cap and passed on.
As I went homeward I wondered who he might be. He must be a stranger,
I thought—probably a visitor in some of our few neighbouring
families. I wondered too if I should meet him again, and found the
thought very pleasant.
I knew few men and they were all old, like Father, or at least
elderly. They were the only people who ever came to our house, and
they either teased me or overlooked me. None of them was at all like
this young man I had met in the beech wood, nor ever could have been,
When I reached home I stopped before the big mirror that hung in the
hall and did what I had never done before in my life—looked at myself
very scrutinizingly and wondered if I had any beauty. I could only
sorrowfully conclude that I had not—I was so slight and pale, and the
thick black hair and dark eyes that might have been pretty in another
woman seemed only to accentuate the lack of spirit and regularity in
my features. I was still standing there, gazing wistfully at my
mirrored face with a strange sinking of spirit, when Father came
through the hall, his riding whip in his hand. Seeing me, he laughed.
"Don't waste your time gazing into mirrors, Isobel," he said
carelessly. "That might have been excusable in former ladies of
Shirley whose beauty might pardon and even adorn vanity, but with you
it is only absurd. The needle and the cookbook are all that you need
concern yourself with."
I was accustomed to such speeches from him, but they had never hurt me
so cruelly before. At that moment I would have given all the world
only to be beautiful.
The next Sunday I looked across the church, and in the Fraser pew I
saw the young man I had met in the wood. He was looking at me with his
arms folded over his breast and on his brow a little frown that seemed
somehow indicative of pain and surprise. I felt a miserable sense of
disappointment. If he were the Frasers' guest I could not expect to
meet him again. Father hated the Frasers, all the Shirleys hated them;
it was an old feud, bitter and lasting, that had been as much our
inheritance for generations as land and money. The only thing Father
had ever taken pains to teach me was detestation of the Frasers and
all their works. I accepted this as I accepted all the other
traditions of my race. I thought it did not matter much. The Frasers
were not likely to come my way, and hatred was a good satisfying
passion in the lack of all else. I think I rather took a pride in
hating them as became my blood.
I did not look at the Fraser pew again, but outside, under the elms,
we met him, standing in the dappling light and shadow. He looked very
handsome and a little sad. I could not help glancing back over my
shoulder as Father and I walked to the gate, and I saw him looking
after us with that little frown which again made me think something
had hurt him. I liked better the smile he had worn in the beech wood,
but I had an odd liking for the frown too, and I think I had a foolish
longing to go back to him, put up my fingers and smooth it away.
"So Alan Fraser has come home," said my father.
"Alan Fraser?" I repeated, with a strange, horrible feeling of
coldness and chill coming over me like a shadow on a bright day. Alan
Fraser, the son of old Malcolm Fraser of Glenellyn! The son of our
enemy! He had been living since childhood with his dead mother's
people, so much I knew. And this was he! Something stung and smarted
in my eyes. I think the sting and smart might have turned to tears if
Father had not been looking down at me.
"Yes. Didn't you see him in his father's pew? But I forgot. You are
too demure to be looking at the young men in preaching—or out of it,
Isobel. You are a model young woman. Odd that the men never like the
model young women! Curse old Malcolm Fraser! What right has he to have
a son like that when I have nothing but a puling girl? Remember,
Isobel, that if you ever meet that young man you are not to speak to
or look at him, or even intimate that you are aware of his existence.
He is your enemy and the enemy of your race. You will show him that
you realize this."
Of course that ended it all—though just what there had been to end
would have been hard to say. Not long afterwards I met Alan Fraser
again, when I was out for a canter on my mare. He was strolling
through the beech wood with a couple of big collies, and he stopped
short as I drew near. I had to do it—Father had decreed—my Shirley
pride demanded—that I should do it. I looked him unseeingly in the
face, struck my mare a blow with my whip, and dashed past him. I even
felt angry, I think, that a Fraser should have the power to make me
feel so badly in doing my duty.
After that I had forgotten. There was nothing to make me remember, for
I never met Alan Fraser again. The years slipped by, one by one, so
like each other in their colourlessness that I forgot to take account
of them. I only knew that I grew older and that it did not matter
since there was nobody to care. One day they brought Father in,
white-lipped and groaning. His mare had thrown him, and he was never
to walk again, although he lived for five years. Those five years had
been the happiest of my life. For the first time I was necessary to
someone—there was something for me to do which nobody else could do
so well. I was Father's nurse and companion; and I found my pleasure
in tending him and amusing him, soothing his hours of pain and
brightening his hours of ease. People said I "did my duty" toward him.
I had never liked that word "duty," since the day I had ridden past
Alan Fraser in the beech wood. I could not connect it with what I did
for Father. It was my delight because I loved him. I did not mind the
moods and the irritable outbursts that drove others from him.
But now he was dead, and I sat in the sullen dusk, wishing that I need
not go on with life either. The loneliness of the big echoing house
weighed on my spirit. I was solitary, without companionship. I looked
out on the outside world where the only sign of human habitation
visible to my eyes was the light twinkling out from the library window
of Glenellyn on the dark fir hill two miles away. By that light I knew
Alan Fraser must have returned from his long sojourn abroad, for it
only shone when he was at Glenellyn. He still lived there, something
of a hermit, people said; he had never married, and he cared nothing
for society. His companions were books and dogs and horses; he was
given to scientific researches and wrote much for the reviews; he
travelled a great deal. So much I knew in a vague way. I even saw him
occasionally in church, and never thought the years had changed him
much, save that his face was sadder and sterner than of old and his
hair had become iron-grey. People said that he had inherited and
cherished the old hatred of the Shirleys—that he was very bitter
against us. I believed it. He had the face of a good hater—or
lover—a man who could play with no emotion but must take it in all
earnestness and intensity.
When it was quite dark the housekeeper brought in the lights and
handed me a letter which, she said, a man had just brought up from the
village post office. I looked at it curiously before I opened it,
wondering from whom it was. It was postmarked from a city several
miles away, and the firm, decided, rather peculiar handwriting was
strange to me. I had no correspondents. After Father's death I had
received a few perfunctory notes of condolence from distant relatives
and family friends. They had hurt me cruelly, for they seemed to
exhale a subtle spirit of congratulation on my being released from a
long and unpleasant martyrdom of attendance on an invalid, that quite
overrode the decorous phrases of conventional sympathy in which they
were expressed. I hated those letters for their implied injustice. I
was not thankful for my "release." I missed Father miserably and
longed passionately for the very tasks and vigils that had evoked
This letter did not seem like one of those. I opened it and took out
some stiff, blackly written sheets. They were undated and, turning to
the last, I saw that they were unsigned. With a not unpleasant
tingling of interest I sat down by my desk to read. The letter began
You will not know by whom this is written. Do not seek to
know—now or ever. It is only from behind the veil of your
ignorance of my identity that I can ever write to you fully
and freely as I wish to write—can say what I wish to say in
words denied to a formal and conventional expression of
sympathy. Dear lady, let me say to you thus what is in my
I know what your sorrow is, and I think I know what your
loneliness must be—the sorrow of a broken tie, the loneliness
of a life thrown emptily back on itself. I know how you loved
your father—how you must have loved him if those eyes and
brow and mouth speak truth, for they tell of a nature divinely
rich and deep, giving of its wealth and tenderness
ungrudgingly to those who are so happy as to be the objects of
its affection. To such a nature bereavement must bring a depth
and an agony of grief unknown to shallower souls.
I know what your father's helplessness and need of you meant
to you. I know that now life must seem to you a broken and
embittered thing and, knowing this, I venture to send this
greeting across the gulf of strangerhood between us, telling
you that my understanding sympathy is fully and freely yours,
and bidding you take heart for the future, which now, it may
be, looks so heartless and hopeless to you.
Believe me, dear lady, it will be neither. Courage will come
to you with the kind days. You will find noble tasks to do,
beautiful and gracious duties waiting along your path. The
pain and suffering of the world never dies, and while it
lives there will be work for such as you to do, and in the
doing of it you will find comfort and strength and the highest
joy of living. I believe in you. I believe you will make of
your life a beautiful and worthy thing. I give you Godspeed
for the years to come. Out of my own loneliness I, an unknown
friend, who has never clasped your hand, send this message to
you. I understand—I have always understood—and I say to you:
"Be of good cheer."
To say that this strange letter was a mystery to me seems an
inadequate way of stating the matter. I was completely bewildered, nor
could I even guess who the writer might be, think and ponder as I
The letter itself implied that the writer was a stranger. The
handwriting was evidently that of a man, and I knew no man who could
or would have sent such a letter to me.
The very mystery stung me to interest. As for the letter itself, it
brought me an uplift of hope and inspiration such as I would not have
believed possible an hour earlier. It rang so truly and sincerely, and
the mere thought that somewhere I had a friend who cared enough to
write it, even in such odd fashion, was so sweet that I was half
ashamed of the difference it made in my outlook. Sitting there, I took
courage and made a compact with myself that I would justify the
writer's faith in me—that I would take up my life as something to be
worthily lived for all good, to the disregard of my own selfish sorrow
and shrinking. I would seek for something to do—for interests which
would bind me to my fellow-creatures—for tasks which would lessen the
pains and perils of humankind. An hour before, this would not have
seemed to me possible; now it seemed the right and natural thing to
A week later another letter came. I welcomed it with an eagerness
which I feared was almost childish. It was a much longer letter than
the first and was written in quite a different strain. There was no
apology for or explanation of the motive for writing. It was as if the
letter were merely one of a permitted and established correspondence
between old friends. It began with a witty, sparkling review of a new
book the writer had just read, and passed from this to crisp comments
on the great events, political, scientific, artistic, of the day. The
whole letter was pungent, interesting, delightful—an impersonal essay
on a dozen vital topics of life and thought. Only at the end was a
personal note struck.
"Are you interested in these things?" ran the last paragraph. "In what
is being done and suffered and attained in the great busy world? I
think you must be—for I have seen you and read what is written in
your face. I believe you care for these things as I do—that your
being thrills to the 'still, sad music of humanity'—that the songs of
the poets I love find an echo in your spirit and the aspirations of
all struggling souls a sympathy in your heart. Believing this, I have
written freely to you, taking a keen pleasure in thus revealing my
thoughts and visions to one who will understand. For I too am
friendless, in the sense of one standing alone, shut out from the
sweet, intimate communion of feeling and opinion that may be held with
the heart's friends. Shall you have read this as a friend, I wonder—a
candid, uncritical, understanding friend? Let me hope it, dear lady."
I was expecting the third letter when it came—but not until it did
come did I realize what my disappointment would have been if it had
not. After that every week brought me a letter; soon those letters
were the greatest interest in my life. I had given up all attempts to
solve the mystery of their coming and was content to enjoy them for
themselves alone. From week to week I looked forward to them with an
eagerness that I would hardly confess, even to myself.
And such letters as they were, growing longer and fuller and freer as
time went on—such wise, witty, brilliant, pungent letters,
stimulating all my torpid life into tingling zest! I had begun to
look abroad in my small world for worthy work and found plenty to do.
My unknown friend evidently kept track of my expanding efforts, for he
commented and criticized, encouraged and advised freely. There was a
humour in his letters that I liked; it leavened them with its sanity
and reacted on me most wholesomely, counteracting many of the morbid
tendencies and influences of my life. I found myself striving to live
up to the writer's ideal of philosophy and ambition, as pictured,
often unconsciously, in his letters.
They were an intellectual stimulant as well. To understand them fully
I found it necessary to acquaint myself thoroughly with the literature
and art, the science and the politics they touched upon. After every
letter there was something new for me to hunt out and learn and
assimilate, until my old narrow mental attitude had so broadened and
deepened, sweeping out into circles of thought I had never known or
imagined, that I hardly knew myself.
They had been coming for a year before I began to reply to them. I had
often wished to do so—there were so many things I wanted to say and
discuss, but it seemed foolish to write letters that could not be
sent. One day a letter came that kindled my imagination and stirred my
heart and soul so deeply that they insistently demanded answering
expression. I sat down at my desk and wrote a full reply to it. Safe
in the belief that the mysterious friend to whom it was written would
never see it, I wrote with a perfect freedom and a total lack of
self-consciousness that I could never have attained otherwise. The
writing of that letter gave me a pleasure second only to that which
the reading of his brought. For the first time I discovered the
delight of revealing my thought unhindered by the conventions. Also, I
understood better why the writer of those letters had written them.
Doubtless he had enjoyed doing so and was not impelled thereto simply
by a purely philanthropic wish to help me.
When my letter was finished I sealed it up and locked it away in my
desk with a smile at my middle-aged folly. What, I wondered, would all
my sedate, serious friends, my associates of mission and hospital
committees think if they knew. Well, everybody has, or should have, a
pet nonsense in her life. I did not think mine was any sillier than
some others I knew, and to myself I admitted that it was very sweet. I
knew if those letters ceased to come all savour would go out of my
After that I wrote a reply to every letter I received and kept them
all locked up together. It was delightful. I wrote out all my doings
and perplexities and hopes and plans and wishes—yes, and my dreams.
The secret romance of it all made me look on existence with joyous,
Gradually a change crept over the letters I received. Without ever
affording the slightest clue to the identity of their writer they grew
more intimate and personal. A subtle, caressing note of tenderness
breathed from them and thrilled my heart curiously. I felt as if I
were being drawn into the writer's life, admitted into the most sacred
recesses of his thoughts and feelings. Yet it was all done so subtly,
so delicately, that I was unconscious of the change until I discovered
it in reading over the older letters and comparing them with the later
Finally a letter came—my first love letter, and surely never was a
love letter received under stranger circumstances. It began abruptly
as all the letters had begun, plunging into the middle of the writer's
strain of thought without any preface. The first words drove the blood
to my heart and then sent it flying hotly all over my face.
I love you. I must say it at last. Have you not guessed it
before? It has trembled on my pen in every line I have written
to you—yet I have never dared to shape it into words before.
I know not how I dare now. I only know that I must. What a
delight to write it out and know that you will read it.
Tonight the mood is on me to tell it to you recklessly and
lavishly, never pausing to stint or weigh words. Sweetheart, I
love you—love you—love you—dear true, faithful woman soul,
I love you with all the heart of a man.
Ever since I first saw you I have loved you. I can never come
to tell you so in spoken words; I can only love you from afar
and tell my love under the guise of impersonal friendship. It
matters not to you, but it matters more than all else in life
to me. I am glad that I love you, dear—glad, glad, glad.
There was much more, for it was a long letter. When I had read it I
buried my burning face in my hands, trembling with happiness. This
strange confession of love meant so much to me; my heart leaped forth
to meet it with answering love. What mattered it that we could never
meet—that I could not even guess who my lover was? Somewhere in the
world was a love that was mine alone and mine wholly and mine forever.
What mattered his name or his station, or the mysterious barrier
between us? Spirit leaped to spirit unhindered over the fettering
bounds of matter and time. I loved and was beloved. Nothing else
I wrote my answer to his letter. I wrote it fearlessly and
unstintedly. Perhaps I could not have written so freely if the letter
were to have been read by him; as it was, I poured out the riches of
my love as fully as he had done. I kept nothing back, and across the
gulf between us I vowed a faithful and enduring love in response to
The next day I went to town on business with my lawyers. Neither of
the members of the firm was in when I called, but I was an old client,
and one of the clerks showed me into the private office to wait. As I
sat down my eyes fell on a folded letter lying on the table beside
me. With a shock of surprise I recognized the writing. I could not be
mistaken—I should have recognized it anywhere.
The letter was lying by its envelope, so folded that only the middle
third of the page was visible. An irresistible impulse swept over me.
Before I could reflect that I had no business to touch the letter,
that perhaps it was unfair to my unknown friend to seek to discover
his identity when he wished to hide it, I had turned the letter over
and seen the signature.
I laid it down again and stood up, dizzy, breathless, unseeing. Like a
woman in a dream I walked through the outer office and into the
street. I must have walked on for blocks before I became conscious of
my surroundings. The name I had seen signed to that letter was Alan
No doubt the reader has long ago guessed it—has wondered why I had
not. The fact remains that I had not. Out of the whole world Alan
Fraser was the last man whom I should have suspected to be the writer
of those letters—Alan Fraser, my hereditary enemy, who, I had been
told, cherished the old feud so faithfully and bitterly, and hated our
And yet I now wondered at my long blindness. No one else could have
written those letters—no one but him. I read them over one by one
when I reached home and, now that I possessed the key, he revealed
himself in every line, expression, thought. And he loved me!
I thought of the old feud and hatred; I thought of my pride and
traditions. They seemed like the dust and ashes of outworn
things—things to be smiled at and cast aside. I took out all the
letters I had written—all except the last one—sealed them up in a
parcel and directed it to Alan Fraser. Then, summoning my groom, I
bade him ride to Glenellyn with it. His look of amazement almost made
me laugh, but after he was gone I felt dizzy and frightened at my own
When the autumn darkness came down I went to my room and dressed as
the woman dresses who awaits the one man of all the world. I hardly
knew what I hoped or expected, but I was all athrill with a nameless,
inexplicable happiness. I admit I looked very eagerly into the mirror
when I was done, and I thought that the result was not unpleasing.
Beauty had never been mine, but a faint reflection of it came over me
in the tremulous flush and excitement of the moment. Then the maid
came up to tell me that Alan Fraser was in the library.
I went down with my cold hands tightly clasped behind me. He was
standing by the library table, a tall, broad-shouldered man, with the
light striking upward on his dark, sensitive face and iron-grey hair.
When he saw me he came quickly forward.
"So you know—and you are not angry—your letters told me so much. I
have loved you since that day in the beech wood, Isobel—Isobel."
His eyes were kindling into mine. He held my hands in a close,
impetuous clasp. His voice was infinitely caressing as he pronounced
my name. I had never heard it since Father died—I had never heard it
at all so musically and tenderly uttered. My ancestors might have
turned in their graves just then—but it mattered not. Living love had
driven out dead hatred.
"Isobel," he went on, "there was one letter unanswered—the last."
I went to my desk, took out the last letter I had written and gave it
to him in silence. While he read it I stood in a shadowy corner and
watched him, wondering if life could always be as sweet as this. When
he had finished he turned to me and held out his arms. I went to them
as a bird to her nest, and with his lips against mine the old feud was
blotted out forever.