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The Red Handkerchief

Alice and Jerome’s fathers were the two best lawyers in the small town where they grew up, and the two men spent a good deal of time together to have dinner, smoke, and discuss their most interesting cases. Often, they brought their wives and children along for these weekly dinners, and the two families became fast friends—but no friendship among them could have been as strong as the one between Alice and Jerome.

They played together like brother and sister from the day they met each other. They fought sometimes, like the children they were, but when all was said and done, they were dear friends. Jerome was infatuated with Alice’s tender kindness, and Alice admired Jerome’s intelligence and optimism. They were such good companions that their fathers, watching their playing from the porch, joked through their cigars that one day their two children would become husband and wife, a joke that was told even as the children grew into adults.

Alice and Jerome pretended to be annoyed at their parents for teasing them so, but secretly—neither of them had confessed this to the other—they had come to love one another as they’d grown older. But Jerome had was too afraid to admit his feelings to Alice, so he had sadly said goodbye to her and left for the city to study law, as his father had done.

They were apart, yes, separated by miles and miles of earth and sky and things unsaid, but Jerome did not forget Alice, nor did she forget him. They had written letters, many letters, longer than the roads that separated them, letters that danced around the topic of love like a man on hot coals. It was never said, but they both knew in their hearts that, in a few years, they would meet each other once more and continue the love they had shared since their childhood.

Jerome’s first letters spoke extensively of his education, but gradually he began to write less about his studies and more about Alice. Finally, after eight years without seeing her beloved, Alice received the letter she had been waiting for since the first time the two had played in the shadow of her father’s front porch. Both of them had subtly spoken in their letters about their feelings and intentions, but they had each been to afraid to say what they wanted, until Jerome had summoned his courage and written the letter that Alice now read, agape with pleasure:
“My dear Alice,” she had read, with a trembling voice and trembling hands, “I am no longer in school, and I have a job of which I am truly proud. I have all the money that I need, and the most beautiful house I could ever want. But—and I think you will agree with me—none of this means a thing in the world if I’ve no one to share it with. I have all that I want, except you, my dear, and it is you that would give me the greatest pleasure. “

At the end, he had added (because he knew well that years can change the face, the body, and even the spirit of a lover) “If you come to the city, wait for me on the platform at the train station. I know I will recognize you by your beautiful and loving heart, but, if not, I will have with me a red handkerchief.”

Alice, ever joyous, boarded a train to the city with nothing but optimism and fantasies. She imagined Jerome, successful now, more handsome than the young man she knew who was not yet grown, working hard to support her and keep her in a large and beautiful house where she would raise their children, all darlings with their father’s earnest faces. She had waited for this moment for a lifetime—for that is what eight years feels like when one is young—and the anticipation was thrilling.

Her train arrived in the city early, an hour before Jerome had instructed her to meet him. Stepping off the train nervously, walking nervously amid the foreign hustle and bustle, she tried to find a place to sit and wait for Jerome. There were several benches outside the station, but it seemed on each a bum was living, napping or talking to himself. Alice, never having seen such a sight before, found it incredibly rude of them—while her dear husband-to-be Jerome had been slaving away in school to provide for their future, these men who had done nothing in their lives were behaving like kings. She stiffly approached one of the vagrants and suggested that he ought to stop loitering and vacate the bench so that a lady might sit.

“I would rather not altogether leave, the grass is rather moist this morning,” the bum said, giving her a patronizing smile. “But we could share the bench if you’d like.”

Alice displayed her outrage with a primly curled lip. “How ungrateful!” she snapped. “You ought to be happy that I haven’t called a policeman!”

The bum laughed.

“Do you think that something is funny?” she cried. “You think that life is a joke? My fiancée works hard studying and working to provide us with money and the most beautiful house in the world, and you, never having worked a day in your life, believe that you’re too good to give up this bench for me? Do you think you’re special?”

The bum laughed again. “Not special, ma’am, but I have to say I wouldn’t very much want to be your fiancée. He may work very hard for a good deal of money and the second most beautiful house in the world, but the outdoors is my house, more beautiful than any other house in the world, and I haven’t any money, but that means nothing to me. I dare say I am happier than your fiancée, I have neither tedious work to do, nor a fiancée who is—“ at this he put his nose in the air—“fairly awful.”

Alice said several words that I will not repeat in order to preserve this story’s decency, turned on her heel, and flounced away indignantly, her nose equally as high in the air. “What an awful man! Jerome is much more polite and ambitious than he. Now I am more sure than ever that he is the best man of them all—the others are nothing.”

The bum watched her go, shook his head, and blew his nose with a red handkerchief. “What a terrible woman! My Alice is much nicer than that—and much prettier as well.” He cast a look at the giant clock in front of the station. “Oh, marvelous! Her train should be arriving just now.”




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