To most of the outside world, it had all the appearances of the perfect literary love affair. And indeed, that is how it was during their early years together, before the mysterious separation, before the sorrow and bitterness.

The were poets, gifted romantics who were young and prosperous and hopelessly in love.

And they had fame. Not only among their own race -- they were a fixture in Washington's turn-of-the-century black society -- but in less accepting upper-echelon white circles as well.

He was Paul laurence Dunbar, the Dayton-born son of former slaves, who became the most celebrated of a largely under-recognized collection of American black poets, probably the first black writer in the United States to live by his writings. Since his death 75 years ago, his poems have been widely anthologized as representing the best work by poets, both black and white, of his generation. And as testimony to the national prominence he attained, schools, libraries and parks throughout the country bear his name, including the District's Dunbar High School.

She was Alice Ruth Moore, an exquisitely attractive school teacher from a socially prominent black New Orleans family, who gained note in her own right as a poet and writer.

That the two fell in love is not surprising, for their literary interests were similar.

What is remarkable is how they fell in love, for their romance -- from their first introduction until the moment two years later when they finally met and agreed to marry -- was carried on entirely through correspondence.

Yet after they married, something went terribly wrong until they finally separated to live out their lives apart.

For more than a half-century Paul Dunbar's biographers have foraged for details about the depth and complexity of the couple's union and for clues to how such devotion could so quickly give way to anguish. Yet each passing year has seemed to diminish chances the full story would ever by known. Relatives with first-hand knowledge have died and those few who remain, even second-generation descendants, possess only sketchy details.

But there is one, and in her modest home tucked away in the tiny town of Arden, Del., she keeps a treasure trove of information.

Her name is Pauline A. Young, a retired teacher and niece of Dunbar's wife. And in her garage, in a broken refrigerator "where they'll be safe if the house burns down," are more than 500 private letters written between Paul and Alice, their families and friends. With the exception of a few time gaps, they chronicle the entire relationship from its inception in the spring of 1895 until Paul's death nearly 11 years later.

Oddly, despite the widespread interest in literary circles even today concerning the Dunbars, only a fraction of this priceless collection has ever been published (although the Ohio Historical Center took care to store it on microfilm nearly a decade ago).

Only a handful of scholars has read any of the originals, and those few who have shown interest have, Young says, seen only fragments.

Yet even an incomplete reading reveals vivid portraits of what Young wistfully calls "a storybook love affair."

It all began in mid-April of 1895.

Paul was 22, a struggling poet of only regional note, when he read one of Alice's poems in the Boston Monthly Magazine. Next to her name was the photograph of a soft-featured, light-skinned woman with alluring dark eyes and a small upturned nose. On April 17 he wrote to her in New Orleans:

"You will pardon my boldness in addressing you, I hope, and let my interest in your work be my excuse," he began. "I am drawn to write you because we are both working along the same lines and a sketch of yours in the Monthly Review so interested me that I was anxious to know more of you and your work . . . I should like to exchange opinions and work with you if you will agree. The counsel and encouragement of one who is striving toward the same end that I am would, I know, greatly help."

Ten days later came her curiously humorous reply:

"Dear Sir: Your letter was handed to me at a singularly inopportune moment -- the house was on fire."

That blaze was apparently quickly doused, but the relationship was just ignited.

They wrote sporadically at first, but within several months were corresponding almost weekly, at first about matters of poetry. In May, Paul suggested a change: "Let us not be literary in our letters, let us be friendly. I like it better, don't you?"

And she did, for the tone and texture of their writing became more personal, and by summer the were communicating in poetry as well as prose.

"Your beautiful name lends itself so readily to verse," wrote Paul in early June. And then added: My love knows not I love her so Say, would she scorn me, did she know? How may the tale I would impart Reach my love's ear and win her heart? Calm thou the tempest in thy breast Who loves in silence loves the best. But bide they time, she will awake No night so dark but morn will break.

More poems followed until finally one crisp autumn Sunday in mid-October, Paul poured out his feelings:

"I know it seems foolish and you will laugh perhaps, or perhaps grow angry, but I can explain in one sentence: You were the sudden realization of an ideal! Isn't there some hope for me? I wish you could read my heart. I love you. I love you. You bring out all the best that is in me. You are an inspiration to me. I am better and purer for having touched hands with you over all these miles."

For nearly two years the romance-by-mail became more intimate. And his poetry during this period reflected his preoccupation with Alice: Know you, winds that blow your course Down the verdant valleys, That somewhere you must, perforce, Kiss the brow of Alice? When her gentle face you find, Kiss it softly, naughty wind. Roses waving fair and sweet Thro' the garden alleys, Grow into a glory meet For the eye of Alice; Let the wind your offering bear Of sweet perfume, faint and rare. Lily holding crystal dew In your pure white chalice, Nature kind hath fashioned you Like the soul of Alice; It of purest white is wrought, Filled with gems of crystal thought.

Some scholars believe the two years of their long-distance romance marked Dunbar's most creative period. During this time he soared from relative obscurity to become America's most famous black poet, a rise made all the more remarkable by his youth. His "discovery" came when, on his birthday in June of 1892, he had captivated a nearly all-white audience with a reading before the Western Association of Writers meeting in Dayton's opera house. Offers of financial assistance followed and a rave review of his work appeared in an 1896 issue of Harper's.

Newspapers featured him and his verse. His books of poetry met with critical and financial success.

All of his dreams had come true -- except one. He had not yet met Alice.

On a cold night in February of 1897, on the eve of his departure for a lecture tour in England, they came together for the first time. The setting was an elegant reception given for him at the stately New York home of an influential admirer.

Alice had moved to Boston and, despite admonishments from family and friends who disapproved of her liaison-by-letters, she had traveled down to New York to see him. The two slipped away from the crowd to talk and before the evening had ended Paul took from his pocket his mother's wedding ring, placed it on Alice's finger and proposed. And even though they had never seen each other until that night, she accepted.

Several days later, aboard the S. S. Umbria bound for England, Paul wrote his mother:

"You will be surprised to hear that Alice Ruth Moore ran away from Boston to bid me goodbye . . . She is the brightest and sweetest little girl I ever met, and I hope you will not think it silly, but Alice and I are engaged.

"You know that is what I have wanted for two years," he said.

If their correspondence had been amorous to that point, what followed could best be described as torrid. Paul's letters during his overseas trip were a mixture of fervor and frivolity.

"Dear little wife to be . . . I am flirting horribly," he teased, noting facetiously that friends worried he was so taken with love that he might end up "Marrying some way-up white woman."

But more often they were like this:

"I think of you and close my eyes with that sensuous slowness which one adopts when one is being killed to the fainting point. My whole being palpitates with passion. My fingers tremble. They want to be running through your hair. My face rubs against your velvet cheek. I feel your breath on my lips. I feel your heart throbbing against mine. I hear you whisper 'My Paul.' I reach once for you and you are not there."

Paul's tour of England was only marginally successful. At the outset he had been in demand for readings, particularly those of his poems written in Negro dialect. As they had been in America, these "jingles in a broken tongue," as he called them, were popular with white audiences.

The reception his dialect poems received provoked a dilemma that plagued him throughout his career. He used dialect for artistic expression, but many whites considered it little more than minstrel "darky talk." Yet they were the only audience with the financial means to purchase his books. To refuse to cater to their racially repugnant tastes would have been to risk his source of income. So he continued to write dialect, although he frequently loathed the day he had first used it.

In England, the novelty of his dialect verse wore off quickly. He was abandoned by his American agent and left lonely and destitute. He was forced to borrow money from a friend to return to the United States in mid-1897.

But once home he found himself still in demand as an elocutionist and lecturer.

In October of 1897 he started work as a clerk in the reading room of the Library of Congress at a yearly salary of $720, a job and pay rate few blacks of the period could command. Despite the long hours at the library he was able to find time for public readings and writing his prose and poetry. And, of course, there was time for Alice.

She was teaching in Brooklyn now, and their hectic schedules permitted them only occasional reunions. The letters of the time hinted at the normal strain that might be expected between two people trying to maintain a long-distance relationship.

"Though you have gone away from me again, still today I am . . . tenderly happy," Alice wrote late in 1897. "I never loved you before so deeply, never felt so near to you in heart and soul as I do now.

"Perhaps it is because we came so near parting last night," she continued. "I was firm at first, dear, but when I saw that awful vista before me, I wavered, and when I saw your tears, oh Paul, I could have put my arms about you and sobbed with you. It came over me in an instant that love like our was made to stand under all circumstances and that it was not I who had its ordering and disposal -- but a Divine power. Pardon me, dear, if I rhapsodize, but I love you, my husband that is to be."

The wedding was held March 6 at the home of the bishop of New York's African Methodist Church. After an overnight honeymoon in a New York hotel, they returned to their separate cities.

The marriage was kept a secret. For one thing, the restrictive customs of the day dictated that women instructors remain single and Alice wished to complete the school year. Then, too, there were her status-conscious parents, who from the beginning had discouraged the notion of marrying -- of all things -- a poet.

Eventually, they were married publicly. Alice's parents accepted the already accomplished act, and she joined Paul in Washington where he had purchased a home. During the next 15 months the Dunbars became prominent fixtures in Washington's black society.

Paul had difficulty finding time to write, lecture and maintain his full-time position at the library. More than once he complained in his letters that Congress remained in session too long, often hanging on "like grim death" far into the night.

But the library took another toll. Paul spent hours there inhaling the dust in the dingy stacks, and his already frail health, a condition that had been with him since childhood, was further damaged by the dust accumulating in his lungs.

Eventually he resigned to write and give public readings. Alice, who possessed the shrewd business sense he lacked, acted as his manager, choosing not only his speaking engagements but even poems which would most appeal to his audiences.

Paul's health continued to decline and in the spring of 1899 he contracted pneumonia and was near death for weeks, with newspapers throughout the nation carrying daily reports of his condition.

He eventually recovered, but to recuperate from what was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis, he moved to New York's Catskill Mountains and later to a small town near Denver. He reduce his appearances and his writing, which were his only means of support. He had to sell the house in Washington. And he began drinking -- at first shots of bourbon, later heavy amounts of alcohol -- to lessen his discomfort.

Finally he was able to resume his lecturing, but letters show the misery of renewed separation was almost greater than the pain of his illness. Paul and Alice once again vowed to see it through, and their letters show continuing ardor.

"Do you know, dear, there are times that I simply quiver with yearning for the warm pleasure of your body against mine as I lie in bed . . . with your head on my arm and my hand pressing the soft roundness of your bosom. What a thrill the very thought of it gives me. I dare not dream more of it," Paul wrote.

They were the embodiment of a blissful couple -- nationally recognized, immensely respected, beginning to regain their financial security and deeply in love.

At least, that is the way it appeared.

The first hints of trouble began to show in the spring of 1901.

Paul's illnesses were more frequent and the pain in his lungs more intense. And he was still drinking -- something Alice loathed but which he mistakenly insisted (or bad advice from a physician) would help stave off his coughing attacks. He needed alcohol to bolster him for his recitals, he argued. But the predictable side effect was that he was not always in control mentally, and people were beginning to talk.

There had been an incident in Philadelphia.

And then he had become so drunk prior to a reading in Evanston, Ill., that he had stumbled to the rostrum, mumbled his verses and finally simply cut the program after much of the audience became angry and left. The episode earned him bad press in Chicago's newspapers.

Yet while her letters show she strongly disapproved of his drinking, Alice remained supportive. She would faithfully mail him the heroin tablets his doctor prescribed. And when he cried out to her -- "I have kissed your picture oh so many times" -- she would respond that she was with him, even though they were miles apart. Throughout the separations their almost daily correspondence was unfailing.

Suddenly, on Jan. 30, 1902, the following letter from Paul, carrying the cold salutation for "Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar," arrived for Alice where they had taken up residence:

"Kindly send . . . whatever clothing, underwear, socks as you can easily pack. You may pay the rent for this month as it will take some time for you to adjust matters and leave the house. Take whatever of the things you wnt except ma's, turn them into cash and store the rest away in my name. Store my books, of course. Separate yours and take them with you. Send my things at once."

The normal signature of "Hubbins" was replaced with the formal "Paul Laurence Dunbar."

Had Alice been unfaithful? Had Paul been indiscreet?

In the more than six years they had known each other there had developed a love so strong, so enduring, so seemingly indestructible that few might have thought it possible anything could separate them.

And to this day the precise cause has remained a source of speculation.

There is one letter from Alice, however, that appears to go a long way toward explaining what happened.

It was uncovered by Dr. Gossie H. Hudson, a history professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore who is regarded as an authority on Dunbar and who is writing a biography of the poet. According to Hudson, who was interviewed by telephone, the letter was written by Alice several years after Dunbar's death to Lida Keck Wiggins, the poet's first biographer. In it Alice reveals a married life that utterly contradicts the joy and happiness portrayed in the letters.

Her husband, Alice wrote, was a "heavy drinker" who went on binges for days and became "a different man altogether -- brutal, in fact."

One night, she recalled, Paul returned to their Washington home in "beastly condition." She tried to help him to bed, but he behaved "disgracefully" and beat her.

Then he went to a downtown Washington saloon and spread lies about her -- lies which she did not recount in the letter. And if that were not enough, he then went to New York and spread a "vile story about me."

It was for that reason -- the untruths -- that she left him.

She could have looked past the brutality, she wrote, "but the slander I could not stand."

And Alice continued, "I never saw him again after that night. I was geniunely afraid of him. Disgusted, too, for this was only a culmination of the misery of four bitter years."

When Paul was himself, she said, he was a "charming companion." Sober, he was "delightful beyond compare." It was "the memory of those happy days that gave me strength to stand the others." What made it all so "especially pitful," she concluded, was that "I believe he loved me above everyone else."

But that overriding love was not enough to counter his indiscretions and Alice never forgave him. Never. Despite the years he begged to be taken back.

Initially, friends tried to reconcile the couple, as did Paul's mother.

And then came Paul.

At first he tried letters. And when she refused to reply, he sent telegrams to her in Washington where she had gone to stay.

"Will you overlook everything and come to New York?" he cabled in mid-April of 1902. "Answer at once."

But she did not.

Despondent and driven again to drinnk, he became gravely ill.

"Alice Dunbar must come at once. Paul delerious. Very ill," read a telegram sent to Alice by impresario Will Cook, a friend who had staged musicals with Paul. But there was silence.

The next day came another cable:

"Paul first stage of paresis [partial paralysis]. Only you can save him. Come or I shalla come after you."

But so far as the correspondence reflects, Alice did not respond.

Eventually Paul's physical condition improved again and he and his mother took up residence in Chicago. He continued to write Alice, continued to seek her pardon. He asked her just "one final time" for her forgiveness.

"This is the last letter I shall write you," he said in the sumemr of 1902.

"I have done everything to amend my fault, and you have kept a brutal silence. Once more I ask you to come back to me . . . I shall wait a week."

But when a week passed he tried again and again and again:

"I have been a coward and a bastard, but I love you . . . Don't you remember when we used to say that we had married for eternity?"

And when all else had failed, he beseeched her in the only manner he was sure might touch her heart: Life is so gray, and so brief, dear, And it is so hard to live. Why should we neighbor with grief, dear, Better to love and forgive.

Alice never again spoke to Paul. She never wrote. Never forgave.

He and his mother moved back to Dayton where his healty gradually became worse and his remaining days were lived in despondency.

Literary scholars have said that the quality of Dunbar's work declined following the separation. Where once he wrote of life and happiness he now frequently wrote knowingly of death and despair.

Friends would later note that even until his death Paul spoke of Alice only in kind terms, and that sometimes he wept at the mention of her name.

But in his heart, he knew it was finished.

He conducted much of his last correspondence from bed, dictating to his secretary. And when he deteriorated, she wrote to Alice on his behalf seeking the return of "some little personal trifles which are dear to Mr. Dunbar's heart" -- a walking stick he had won as a boy, for example, and his first scrapbook.

Alice would occasionally ask about his health, but only through correspondence to his personal physician and with strict instructions that he not disclose that she had inquired.

In the early part of 1906 Paul's illness became acute. And finally, in mid-afternoon on Feb. 9, he died.

He was only 34.

The news of his death spread quickly and he was eulogized by the nation's leaders. Newspapers ran lengthy obituaries.

Several days later he was buried near a large oak tree in the city's cemetery as saddened family and friends looked on, although Alice was not among them.

Eventually a bronze plaque ws erected on the burial spot bearing these peaceful lines from one of his most memorable dialect poems: Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass, Whah de branch'll go a-singin' as it pass. An' w'en I's a-layin' low, I king hyeah it as it go Singin', 'Sleep, ma honey, tek yo' res' at las'.