object letter

'Next morning, as he was driving to the office, an old woman threw a packet into his dog-cart. In the packet was the half of a broken glass bangle, one flower of the blood red dhak, a pinch of bhusa or cattle-food, and eleven cardamoms. That packet was a letter--not a clumsy compromising letter, but an innocent, unintelligible lover's epistle.
Trejago knew far too much about these things, as I have said. No Englishman should be able to translate object-letters. But Trejago spread all the trifles on the lid of his office-box and began to puzzle them out.

A broken glass-bangle stands for a Hindu widow all India over; because, when her husband dies a woman's bracelets are broken on her wrists. Trejago saw the meaning of the little bit of the glass. The flower of the dhak means diversely "desire," "come," "write," or "danger," according to the other things with it. One cardamom means "jealousy;" but when any article is duplicated in an object-letter, it loses its symbolic meaning and stands merely for one of a number indicating time, or, if incense, curds, or saffron be sent also, place. The message ran then:--"A widow dhak flower and bhusa--at eleven o'clock." The pinch of bhusa enlightened Trejago. He saw-- this kind of letter leaves much to instinctive knowledge--that the bhusa referred to the big heap of cattle-food over which he had fallen in Amir Nath's Gully, and that the message must come from the person behind the grating; she being a widow. So the message ran then:--"A widow, in the Gully in which is the heap of bhusa, desires you to come at eleven o'clock."'
Rudyard Kipling, Beyond the Pale.

Read the rest of the short story here.