SHORT STORY

The farewell Letter

 

 

 

‘Today is special,’ whispered Sophie Hammond, crossing her fingers for good luck. If she kept her eyes on the frosted glass door with its tarnished bell, sometime in the half hour before the Café Royal closed, that bell would jingle, the door would open and her brother, Rupert, would appear.

Long shadows across the floor hinted that dusk was settling behind shop facades across Rundle Street. She would not turn to look at empty produce carts and weary market-goers carrying sacks of vegetables or the newsboy flourishing the late edition near a stack of empty crates. She must watch the door. If she looked towards the crowded street, or ordered another pot of tea or laid out two shillings on the tabletop, he might pause on the threshold and then turn away.

How could she face her anxious mother, if after a year on the battlefield and that long voyage home from the Western Front, her brother’s return passed unnoticed?

She fingered the moonstone and silver necklace that she had worn especially for this occasion: exactly one year since he had sat opposite at this very table and they had admired his gift to her in its velvet box. He had smiled, handsome in his stiff new uniform, his blue eyes bright with excitement. ‘When you wear it, think of me in Paris drinking claret and chatting to pretty mademoiselles or marching along the Champs Elysée with my regiment. The recruiting officer said that this stoush will be over before Christmas.’ But his most recent letter had been stamped Paris 5 Avril 1918 and this was September.

The doorbell sounded and she jerked upright. A male arm in a khaki sleeve had pushed the glass panel. She stood quickly, her hand against the necklace, her cold tea spilling into the saucer. ‘Rupert?’

A soldier paused in shadows and then began to walk between empty tables towards her. His wary expression lightened into recognition and then a broad smile. ‘Lettie Morrison. Lettie, my dear, I had almost given up hope of finding you.’ He held out both hands as if to grasp hers.

Sophie snatched her hands away and backed against her chair. His uniform covered a muscular body unlike her brother’s slimness, and his broad brow and deep-set brown eyes held no boyish mischief. Her euphoria faded into trepidation. ‘My name is Sophie … Sophie Hammond. Do you have news? Is that why you came? Do you have news of my brother, Rupert? We have heard nothing for four months.’

His smile wavered. ‘News? Did you not get my letters? I recognised the necklace right away—moonstones in silver. Cecil spent 15 francs posting it to Adelaide and bored us to tears with how pretty you would look. Lettie? It’s me, Edward Pearce, your fiance’s best friend.’

He drew back a chair and motioned for her to sit but she ignored him. ‘What are you saying? Are you here to tell me that Rupert has been found? Is he in hospital? He is my younger brother, not my fiancé and I am not Lettie. You’ve got everything wrong.’

Her voice had risen to a strident note that she could not control and the few diners had turned in her direction. She grabbed her handbag from the table and clutched it tightly. ‘You have no business to approach me like this. A uniform does not give you the right to accost any young woman seated alone. How dare you.’

His face grew tight with shock when she shouldered him aside and made for the door. She slammed it so hard that the bell’s rattling followed her down the street. He had frightened her with his nonsense about the necklace and his so-called best friend. How could a man in uniform behave so badly? He had completely smashed her hopes.

˜ * ˜

Early next morning, streetcars were rumbling along King William Street when Sophie paused on the library steps. She had forty minutes to spare before ladies from the Methodist Guild arrived to knit winter garments for soldiers’ children in the Periodicals Room. Guilt had kept her awake until after midnight and remorse gnawed deep inside her. How misguided she had been to indulge her selfish fantasy that Rupert would appear; how shameful to insult a newly returned soldier.

Caught in unanswered questions, she turned and walked quickly towards the Café Royal. Why had he recognised her moonstone necklace? Why had he persisted in calling her Lettie? Of course Captain Pearce would not be there at this early hour. She knew nothing but his name and rank and that he was searching for Lettie Morrison. How foolish to think that she could find him among Adelaide’s many streets and lanes.

By the time she reached Rundle Street, she was almost running. She paused and stared about at produce wagons lining the kerb and merchants unloading fruit from a truck. Then she saw a tall figure in khaki leaning against a verandah post and tapping out his pipe. He straightened slowly and yawned and when he turned away, she saw a square white dressing half-hidden by his peaked cap.

She flinched, hot with shame, and stepped into a doorway. Why had she not noticed? He had been wounded and sent home from the battlefield. How could she have been in such a temper that she did not notice? She should go back to the library and forget him. She could knit socks and send overdue notices and stack damaged books for binding and pretend that she had never acted so cruelly.

‘Miss Hammond? It is Miss Hammond?’ His smiling face loomed close to hers. ‘I had hoped to see you again.’

She backed hard against a closed door. ‘Oh, Captain! What a coincidence. I was on my way to work.’ Thick black lashes edged his lively eyes and his visored cap was tilted at a jaunty angle. He seemed extremely cheerful for a wounded veteran. When heat rose through her cheeks, she turned aside. ‘I must apologise, sir, for my impossibly rude behaviour last evening. Nothing I can say can make amends for such a hateful display.’

He shifted his weight and propped one arm against the window frame, his eyes thoughtful. ‘I understand perfectly. A simple case of mistaken identity. But I am intrigued by your necklace, Miss Hammond, and your presence at the window table. There must be a logical explanation for this mystery and I would be grateful if you could spare the time … Perhaps after you finish work? At the Café Royal? Being from Melbourne, I’m not familiar with Adelaide’s eating houses.’

Sophie stared at two silver buttons and a neatly pressed pocket. If she looked into his face, she would blush again. ‘I leave the library at five-thirty. Since the Head Librarian enlisted, I must close the blinds and lock all external doors and check the fire alarm. I could be here by six.’

˜ * ˜

 ‘Hand-crafted by a silversmith in France,’ said Sophie, running a finger over the setting around the largest moonstone. ‘At least that’s what Mr Perryman, the jeweller, told us. You see, Rupert was apprenticed to him as a watchmaker but impatient to be away to the war, and when Mr Perryman received this necklace on consignment, my brother bought it at a discount. He could never have afforded it otherwise.

‘Rupert wrote every two weeks from wherever he was billeted. From the first week in April, we have not heard anything of him. My mother fears the worst.’

When Edward Pearce angled his head to inspect the jewel laid on the tablecloth, the white dressing and cropped hair behind his ear showed clearly. Not a recent injury, Sophie thought, but a severe one: a head wound and tightly covered. Her breath caught with unease. Was delivering a letter to his dead friend’s fiancée the only reason for his visit to Adelaide? She watched his blunt finger trace the leaf pattern in the setting.

‘Art Nouveau, the old chap in Amiens told us. He was emptying his shop and setting out for Paris before the Germans advanced. Cecil gave him two weeks’ pay and his new woollen greatcoat. Poor Cecil regretted that a few months later when ice filled the trenches.’ He looked up, his face softening at the memory. In that moment, his eyes lost their weariness and the lines around his mouth smoothed away.

She smiled at him. ‘Tell me why you thought I was Lettie.’

He leaned back in his chair. ‘Before I do, we should order another round of tea and cinnamon toast. Or a sherry. Would you care for a glass of wine?’

‘Oh, no thank you. Tea will do. The café owner, has pledged the temperance ladies not to serve liquor.’

He signalled to the waitress before he reached into his jacket pocket. Then he laid a brown newspaper clipping, a torn photograph and a sealed letter beside the necklace. ‘These are Cecil’s treasures that he always carried: the photo of Lettie inside his left pocket with the clipping, and the farewell letter to her in his right. My duty was to deliver this letter in the event of his death.’

Sophie fastened the necklace around her neck while the waitress, with a sidelong glance at the letter, set the cups and teapot on the edge of the table. ‘Would you do the honours again, my dear?’ Edward said. ‘My hands are rather shaky.’

While she poured tea and added condensed milk, he ran a finger through the sugar and cinnamon on his toast and licked it. ‘Childish I know,’ he said, colouring, ‘but such luxuries are almost beyond my imagining. We can start with the engagement notice which Cecil used to read to us during lulls in the shelling.’

Sophie was tempted to drop the fragment and wipe her fingers; she had never handled newsprint so ingrained with filth. But a dead soldier had carried this notice over his heart. ‘Mr And Mrs Arthur Smith of Norwood,’ she read, ‘have pleasure in announcing the engagement of their only son, Cecil William, to Lettie May, elder daughter of Mrs Agnes Morrison of Mile End.

‘I’ve been to Mile End,’ he said, wiping cinnamon from his hand, ‘but the cottage has been sold and its new owners don’t know the Morrisons.’

‘This photograph doesn’t resemble me,’ she said while she placed the clipping beside the letter. ‘Lettie’s eyes are darker and she has a thinner face but it’s hard to tell because of water stains.’

‘I’m afraid that photograph lay in mud for two days before we found him. Your hair is pinned like hers and you were sitting at their table. Cecil told me several times that they took dinner here each Friday. So, of course I thought …’ His hand pressed heavily on the letter and he looked into her eyes. ‘Will you help me? I promised Cecil I would find her.’

Shocked by his stricken face, Sophie recoiled. ‘How can I? Perhaps if you ask at the Post Office or—’

‘You work at the library among newspapers and records. If you search there …’

˜ * ˜

Edward unlaced his boots and placed them near the verandah railing of the Botanic Hotel. Then he leaned back in the sagging cane chair and closed his eyes. The perfume of flowering trees drifted in darkness and the squeaking and rustling of roosting birds reached him from shadowed trees in the gardens across empty North Terrace. At first, Adelaide’s night silence had left him sleepless anticipating the shriek of incoming shells but now he savoured the quietness of a town at peace. When he fumbled in his pocket for his pipe, his hand touched the letter.

His initial guilt at shaming Miss Hammond into searching records for Lettie had given way to pleasure at having an ally in his quest; and a pretty ally at that. Prim in her mended clothes and with ink stains on her fingers, she bore no likeness to thin, over-rouged French girls that he had encountered in wayside villages on the Somme.

Sitting opposite her in the café for their third meeting, he had admired the shimmering moonstone against her pale skin and the way her soft mouth had rounded while she read out lists of names and addresses. An onlooker might have mistaken her for his sweetheart reading to her soldier while she poured tea and passed the sugar and trucks unloaded cabbages in the street.

When he leaned forward to tap out his pipe, pain bloomed like a shell-burst in his head. He gripped the wooden railing until his nausea passed. ‘No sudden movements and wear the neck brace at night,’ the surgeon had told him that morning. ‘You’re scheduled for Friday at eight. Next of kin?’

‘My grandmother in Melbourne. I’ve already written to her.’

‘Good man. We may strike complications but you’ve been warned about that. Shrapnel lodged in the skull can be tricky.’

Edward opened his eyes slowly, the scent of blossom heavy in the air. What if Lettie Morrison did not want to be found? What then? At all costs, he must keep his promise.

˜ * ˜

Sewing machines clattered from outside the storeroom door while Sophie turned pages of The Advertiser. Seated among boxes filled with clothes for missing soldiers’ families, she had scanned every issue for the past seven months and found nothing. In one hour’s time, Edward Pearce would be waiting at their usual table and she must have good news. Yesterday, after he had visited the houses of three Morrisons listed in Council records, he had sat, grey-faced and silent, while his tea cooled at his elbow.

She sighed and turned another page. Lettie Morrison smiled at her from the social column, large pearls around her neck and tulle roses on her hat. Mrs Archibald West formerly Letitia Morris, presents the Turf Club trophy.

˜ * ˜

At the Adelaide Hospital, Sophie took the stairs two at a time and arrived at the surgical ward. ‘I was sent here from the Café Royal,’ she gasped to the matron. ‘Captain Pearce collapsed in the street and was brought here. Is he alright?’

Folding heavy arms across her starched uniform, the matron looked her over. ‘Relatives only.’

Sophie matched her steely look and slid her left hand behind her handbag. ‘I’m his fiancée. We arranged to meet for lunch.’

The matron’s eyes narrowed. ‘Lunch! You should have taken better care of him. He’s in surgery. Won’t be back for hours. He was very restless when we brought him around, muttering about a letter. You can take a seat in the hallway and wait.’

The matron strode away and Sophie spotted a khaki uniform neatly folded on an empty bed. After checking that the only nurse was talking with a patient behind a screen, she opened a pocket and searched inside. She would wait for Edward Pearce until he opened his eyes, however many hours or days that took. But first, she must deliver the letter.

˜ * ˜

When Sophie arrived at the parade ground, a marching band was playing and dignitaries huddled on two bench seats on a flag-draped stage. The crowd drew closer after Alderman West rapped against the podium and the band fell silent. Beyond the sea of hats and sunshades, she caught sight of Lettie rocking a pram in the deep shade of a cypress tree. While Sophie skirted the crowd, applause broke out and Lettie lifted a baby against her shoulder and soothed it.

‘Letitia? Lettie Morrison, I have a letter for you. Captain Pearce brought it from France.’

The woman’s face convulsed in fright and her hand gripped the baby’s shawl. ‘Who are you? Go away.’

‘Letitia, this letter is from Cecil. He wanted you to have it.’

Lettie backed away clutching her baby. ‘I know no Cecil. You have the wrong person. Go before I call my husband.’

Sophie thrust the letter at her. Her hand trembled and a mist of rage blurred her vision. Words burst from her lips. ‘I would give anything to have a letter from my lost brother or any brave young man who loved me. Cecil is dead and you have forgotten him already.’

The shawl fell open and the baby gazed up at Sophie with tranquil eyes. Amid scattered applause, Alderman West was descending the steps with a worried look towards his wife. Lettie gripped Sophie’s outstretched hand and pulled her close. ‘He must not know. You must not tell him. I could not wait for Cecil.’ Their gazes locked.

Sophie slipped the letter inside the shawl and smiled. ‘Goodbye Mrs West. I do hope you accept our invitation. Fund-raising for the war effort is always so commendable.’

˜ * ˜

The incessant roar of field artillery had faded and the hospital train rolled smoothly through the night towards Le Havre. On an open wagon, Captain Pearce stretched under his blanket and looked up at a cloudless sky where hazy trails of stars had turned to moonstones, each one shimmering and beautiful. His head no longer throbbed and his feet felt warm; an angel’s fingers stroked his hand and a melodious voice whispered over and over: ‘Lettie has the letter.’

The sky lightened and a spray of cherry blossoms spread before his eyes. ‘Am I in heaven?’ he said.

‘Not yet, captain,’ said a brisk female voice. ‘You’re in Adelaide Hospital after surgery and your fiancée is here to see you.’

Slowly his vision sharpened to a ceiling fan, a metal bed frame and a pale face smiling at him. Of course Sophie was his fiancée. Soon they would hold hands across the café table and eat cinnamon toast while they planned their life together. ‘My dearest,’ he said, squeezing her warm fingers. ‘I knew you’d find me.’

 

 

Read The Farewell Letter and other short stories in Little Gems-Moonstone, the Romance Writers of Australia anthology for 2014.