The tale is played out on a train. The train journey is highlighted by a rendezvous of two former acquaintances. Young and beautiful Miss Fairchild was surprised to reunite with Mr. Easton, her old friend. He is with another man and sits just in front of her seat.
On recognizing his old friend, Mr. Easton offers his left hand for a shake as his right is constrained by handcuffs. The other end of the cuffs is tied to a burly man seated next to him. Startled to see him in cuffs, Miss Fairchild is lost for words when the strapping man speaks to break the awkward silence. He says that he was caught for perpetrating a counterfeiting fraud and was sentenced to a 7-year prison sentence. Mr. Easton was the escorting Marshal and was responsible for his transportation to the prison in Leavenworth.
This information settled Miss Fairchild’s nerves as unflattering speculations had already started circulating her mind in regards to her old friend. They sat together and started catching up about their time apart. Mr. Easton tells her that he had taken a life of toil and responsibility as a law officer and given up his luxurious and vain ways of the past. Now, he was living in the West after moving from Washington. Miss Fairchild confesses her love for the West as well. She feels encumbered and restrained in the life in Washington. She feels that she has to live according to other people’s whims there. She continues to gaze at the metal bracket around Mr. Easton’s right hand. Observing her discomfort, the prisoner again offers an explanation saying that it was customary for the escorting Marshal to keep them on lest the prisoner makes a run or tries to escape.
After some time elapses, the prisoner asks Mr. Easton to take him for a smoke as he had not smoked for a while and was craving it. Mr. Easton wishes Miss Fairchild well and leaves with the prisoner.
The story then introduces two passengers who was sitting near the aforementioned trio and over heard their conversation. One of them is full of praise for Mr. Easton who has risen to the rank of a Marshal at a very young age. The other, however, notices something very odd about him and the prisoner. Mr. Easton had handcuffs in his right hand which is different than most of the law officers who keep their left hand in cuffs and hook the prisoner’s right hand.
Thus, at the very end of the story, we realize that it was Mr. Easton who was the prisoner and sentenced to jail while his companion was the accompanying Marshal. The real Marshal had saved Mr. Easton from an embarrassing encounter with an old friend by hiding his true identity, a true gesture of compassion and human understanding.
‘Hearts and Hands’ explores various ideas from spuriousness, identity, independence to honesty.
Through the character of Easton the author highlights how the human psyche works on appearances and how people can manipulate this to their benefit.
It also foreshadows the lives many people end up livings, confined, imitative and defined by what other’s expect from them. In a way they live a life imprisoned by other people’s opinions and the sad part is that they do not even realize that. Easton for all his politeness and acting ability lived a life based on impersonation and dissimulation never to fulfill his true potential.