by Andrew MacRae
Strangers Well Met first appeared in audio form on Tales of Old. Though not a typical mystery short story, this is indeed a fun story for any mystery fan!
In the early darkness of a cold evening in January, 1848, a train left the Baltimore and Ohio station in Washington DC and gathered speed as it rocked its way toward Baltimore. Not long after its departure, the door to one compartment slid open and a man peered inside.
“I beg your pardon, sir. Is this seat occupied?”
The compartment’s only inhabitant looked up and gestured to the seat opposite.
“No, sir, it is not and I would welcome your company as the night is bitter cold and the railway parsimonious with its coal.” He was a tall, lanky man and he shifted his long legs, already nearly doubled in the confines of the small compartment, to make room for the other man.
Once seated, the two men appraised each other in the way strangers will. The newcomer was short of stature but with a large head featuring well-trimmed mustaches and an untamed mane of black hair. His clothes were well cut but with a genteel air of shabbiness that suggested a man once well off, now living under strained circumstance. At length he made an effort at conversation.
“Your height works against you in these circumstances, if I may be so bold as to make such comment without causing offense.”
A smile opened on the taller man’s lean face. “I have lived with these overly long appendages all my life and hope they shall both be with me when I take leave of it. As for offense, do not fear. I have heard far worse. Only the other day, as I rose to give a speech, a colleague, hoping to throw me off my stride, so to speak, interrupted by calling the question, “Sir, how long do you believe a man’s legs should be?” I parried his question by answering, “Why sir, long enough to reach the ground.”
The other smiled in return.
“Well played, sir. Well played.” He reached inside his overcoat and produced a small silver flask. “Perhaps something to keep away the cold?”
His companion accepted the flask. “Ordinarily, I try to avoid spirits but on a night such as this, I thank you.” He unscrewed the top and took a swallow, grimacing as the whiskey burned his throat. He handed the flask back to its owner who lifted it toward the other.
“Your health, sir, and with appreciation for a man skilled with words.” He took a long pull and sighed with satisfaction at the sensation the liquor produced. He carefully screwed the top back on the flask and with equal care replaced it inside his coat. “Sadly, in my profession I deal far too often with men who fancy themselves wordsmiths yet are woefully in error.”
“Your occupation, sir?”
“I am an editor by vocation and a writer by avocation. The former feeds my body while the latter nourishes my soul.”
“Your Old Dominion manners and accent suggest you are a Virginian, at least by birth.”
“You have a good ear, my tall friend, for I spent my formative years in Richmond, though I presently make my home in Baltimore.” He extended his right hand. “Edgar Allan Poe, sir, at your service.”
“I know your work!” exclaimed the other man, accepting and shaking the offered hand with relish. “My wife, our friends and I have taken great delight in reading your poems and stories aloud to each other.” He began to introduce himself but was interrupted as the other man managed to free his hand from the handshake and raise it.
“Please, allow me to speculate.” The man calling himself Poe studied his companion. At length he said, “Your accent, clothes and general countenance suggest a man of the west.”
The other man nodded. “Correct thus far.”
“You spoke of rising to give a speech. The most likely reason I can conjure for a Westerner to be in Washington giving a speech is his being a member of congress.” The other man nodded again. Poe continued. “Forgive me, but you have neither the age nor gravitas of a senior politician, and I say this as a compliment, and so rather than a senator you are more likely a member of the House. Beyond that I cannot speculate further. How have I done?”
His companion clapped his large hands with genuine appreciation. “Very good, Mr. Poe, very good. It is no wonder you are so skilled at writing your stories of mystery.”
It was his turn to extend his hand to the other and introduce himself. “Abraham Lincoln, congressman from Illinois, at least for now.” Poe raised a bushy eyebrow in inquiry at this last.
Lincoln explained. “I fear my recent speeches against the president’s military adventures in Mexico have all but ensured my defeat in this year’s election. Accordingly, I have decided not to run for reelection and next year return to Illinois and the practice of law.”
“You are against the use of military force?”
“No, not when necessary. But this war with Mexico is but a war of choice, ill considered and unwarranted. Unfortunately, it is also popular with the general public, particularly with my constituency back home. And so, I shall retire from politics and return to repair my reputation and, I am hoping, replenish my pocketbook, for thus far in life I have little to show for my endeavors.”
“I share your thoughts, sir. In two days’ time I shall have reached the age of thirty-nine with naught but creditors to mark the occasion.”
“But your stories and poems are popular and well spoke of, widely and often published. Surely there must be great profit in them?”
“Sadly, little of those profits are returned to the author. Most publications admit no reason to provide further recompense for works already written and paid for. No, it is only my work as an editor from which I derive a living, meager as it is.”
There was a pause as the two men considered life and its vagaries. At length, Lincoln spoke again.
“You mentioned turning thirty-nine in two days’ time. That is something of a coincidence, for I too shall achieve that age in just a matter of weeks and with, I fear, as little to show for it as you.”
The two sat in contemplative silence for a spell, broken at last by the distant shriek of the rail engine’s whistle. As if in response Poe slapped a hand upon his knee.
“Then, sir, we are indeed well met! Let us drink a toast to the Class of Eighteen Ought Nine.” He retrieved his flask from inside his coat and offered it again to Lincoln who on taking it, solemnly raised it.
“To your long health and good fortune, sir.”
He took a drink, and passed it back. Poe, too, raised the flask.
“Here’s to hope that in a generation or two, perhaps, just perhaps our names shall be remembered by other than only our families.”
The ceremony completed, the two men shared a boisterous laugh. A stranger passing in the corridor outside their compartment paused and wondered at the cause of merriment on such a dark and bitter night. The engine’s whistle shrieked again as the train continued its journey.