The white feather

“Steven Ashton to see you Sir”.

“Give me five minutes Jones, then show him in”. Sir Cyril Wetherby dismissed his clerk with a nod. It would not take even a minute to prepare for this encounter. Hate rose up like bile in his throat until he almost gagged on the bitterness. He had bided his time, planned and plotted for this moment, and now he wanted to savor the final victory for a few minutes more.

His talon like fingers clawed at the mahogany desktop. Three years, and the agony of losing his only child was still a raw, festering wound that only revenge could heal. The Ashton’s vile sensation seeking newspapers had driven Jim to shoot himself, and George Ashton was as guilty as if he had actually aimed the gun, and pulled the trigger. Ah yes, Ashton had had a field day expostulating about the cowards who stayed at home, growing fat on black market luxuries while their fellow countrymen were fighting in France. Thick, dark headlines asking why the pampered sons of rich men idled their hours away in safety at home, while the blood from the working class was shed in France.

Day after day Ashton’s pen spewed out its condemnation and young Jim had taken it all to heart. Few would believe that a strapping young man of twenty-one, had been found by the army to be suffering from a heart murmur. Captain of the cricket eleven and champion footballer, oh, my beautiful son, such a waste. Sir Cyril felt like weeping, but he couldn’t because he had already cried himself dry. Hate and revenge were the only emotions left in him now. They sustained him as he fed off the bitterness of his loss.

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Ashton had driven Jim to his death, aided and abetted by the over-zealous patriotism of the townsfolk, but they would all pay soon he thought grimly. He had bought the paper mill and closed it down, only to find that the workers got themselves jobs in the munitions factory. The war wouldn’t last forever, then they would know what it was like to suffer.

Inconspicuously, he had acquired all the property that he could, including several streets of houses once belonging to the Ashtons. Old George had been a fool paying over award wages, and letting his employees live almost rent free in company houses. George had gambled and drank away his fortune. Two of his sons had been killed in Flanders, yet he felt no pity for his foe, because there was still another Ashton left, who was even now, waiting outside to plead his case.

Let him wait Sir Cyril thought savagely, just like I have to. There is no end in sight for me, only loneliness and yearning for Jim. He had been so proud of his son but had to sit helpless as public opinion crucified the boy. With shaking fingers he pulled out the desk drawer and withdrew a brown envelope. Opening the flap he shook the contents out. A white feather fluttered down to rest on top of the Ashton mortgage papers. Dazzling white, this lethal weapon, sent anonymously through the mail, had been the catalyst for Jim to take his own life. The foulness of it all, the sheer cowardice of such a despicable act. The sender of this message was a murderer, and the whole town would pay now because of an anonymous coward, who had been stirred up by George Ashton’s patriotic ravings.

He walked over to gaze in the gilt-edged mirror hanging on one wall. A face, thin to the point of emaciation, with tightly drawn skin over prominent cheek bones stared back at him. Fifty years old. I should be in my prime he thought, but grief had prematurely aged him. Steel grey hair combed severely back from his forehead, dark pouches under either eye. I’m suffering and it shows. Ah, but soon.

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He waited, pebble hard eyes burning with the light of revenge, stood out like beacons. That cringing asthmatic clerk trembled every time he enters my office, and so he should. I could fire him just like that. Sir Cyril snapped his fingers with a loud crack. No-one else would give such a sniveling specimen a job, even if there was a war on, and Jones knew it too. Power! It was good to be able to wield it over lesser beings, and sense the animosity they dared not show.

Perhaps he could tell young Ashton he wouldn’t see him now after all. He enjoyed the idea for a moment, but with brutal honestly knew he could not begrudge himself the sweet, final victory any longer. Blood rushed to his head, his veins tingled and he felt breathless.

He sat behind the desk again, and like a gladiator building up for his first blooding, waited. Young Ashton would be seventeen, eighteen maybe. The middle boy had been closest to Jim in age. George Ashton had made money out of the mill and the newspaper, but before that he had worked in the coal mines. A sneer curled Sir Cyril’s lips. Working class trash. Even though he had become wealthy, George ended up a gambling, penniless drunk. Bad blood could never be purified.

With a savage thrust of pain he thought of his own aristocratic lineage which would now be no more, because Jim had not been married. This pup of George Ashton’s dared to have the gall to come pleading for mercy from the man whose son had been murdered by vicious lies printed in the family’s newspaper.

Footsteps heading toward this, the inner sanctum. Jones’ voice, then the door opened. Sir Cyril picked up a pen and pretended to write.

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“I’ve come to see if you would grant me an extension to pay the mortgage on our newspaper”.

Sir Cyril raised his head.

“I’ve got some deferred army pay owing, if you could wait until it comes through”.

He was only a boy, with hair so white it might almost be silver. He dragged his leg painfully as he limped across the room, one of the sleeves on his uniform jacket was empty, but neatly pinned back. This was the enemy, so why didn’t revenge sear through his veins Sir Cyril wondered. Why was it that no words of condemnation passed out from behind the lump of distaste blocking his throat? Why should I do you any favours, your father’s headlines killed my son. He tried to whip up his hatred.

“Please, the paper is all I have now”. The boy’s hand trembled as he passed it over his forehead. “I’m sorry about Jim. I don’t know why he didn’t enlist, but after my brothers were killed I was afraid to go. Only I couldn’t stay home, not after someone sent me a…”

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“Sit down, before you fall down”. Sir Cyril stabbed his finger at the chair, wondering why he was not capitalising on the fact that Steven Ashton was wounded and desperate. The sweetness of revenge suddenly tasted bitter.

Slowly the young soldier drew something from his pocket.

“Here, take these mortgage papers back”. Sir Cyril spoke on a shuddering breath, because when the boy opened his hand, a white feather lay on his outstretched palm.


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