Emma Whitworth sat outside the post office, just as she had every day for the past week. Her stomach ached. She’d tried everything to make it go away. Ginger, chamomile, peppermint, even that new vapour rub that always gave her a headache, nothing worked. Only one thing could relieve her pain now.
She glanced up at the clock tower. It was almost eight o’clock. The office staff should have finished sorting the letters by now. She rose from her seat, took a deep breath, and slipped inside.
The minute she saw Mr Finch’s face, she knew that relief would not come today.
Before she could even ask her question, the kindly old postmaster shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, miss Emma, nothing today.’
She tried not to let the disappointment show on her face, but she must have failed.
‘Remember, miss,’ Finch said. ‘Sometimes, no news is good news. Especially in times like this.’
Emma hung her head. ‘I know, I know. I just… I wish he’d write.’
‘He’s probably just busy,’ the old man said, nodding sagely. ‘The army can be a harsh mistress, you know.’
Emma smiled, putting on as brave a face as she could. ‘I hope you’re right.’
She left the office and paused. She really ought to go home, but she couldn’t face her parents. They’d never really liked Harry and thought she was wasting her time coming here every day. She chose to take a stroll through the village lanes instead. Perhaps the fresh air would do her good. It might even stave off her stomach aches for a while.
It was a pleasant enough walk. At least, it should have been. If only she didn’t see Harry’s face everywhere she went. She saw him outside the schoolhouse, where he’d volunteered to help the less well-off children. She saw him in the shaded gardens of Mrs Beaton’s tea rooms, where he’d taken her on their first official date. She saw him on the grassy banks by Miller’s Pond, where they’d shared their first kiss. There was no place among these drystone walls and delicately manicured lawns that wasn’t tainted by his memory.
Emma couldn’t bear to think of the good days. Before the war. Before her life was turned upside down. But it pained her even more to think of the bad days.
Unwillingly, she felt her mind dragged back to that fateful summer’s day.
Britain was at war. A gang of Serbian nationalists had assassinated some Austrian Archduke. Russia got involved, which prompted Germany to start throwing its weight around. Thanks to the patchwork of treaties that crisscrossed the continent, Britain soon found itself fighting a war in Europe for the first time since the days of Napoleon.
As the first British troops set off for France, the army called for volunteers, and young men up and down the country flocked to the recruiting stations in droves. They thought that they were in for the greatest adventure of their lives.
Not Harry, though. He never was one to follow the crowd.
‘It’s all a load of foolish nonsense,’ he said as they took one of their walks through the village. ‘All these young men, ready to fight and die. And for what?’
‘Surely for their country?’ Emma had replied.
He laughed so hard that his broad shoulders shook. ‘Patriotism and pride are nothing more than tools of the imperialist establishment. Those boys going off to fight have far more in common with the men they’re about to be shooting at than the officers whose orders they follow.’
‘Perhaps,’ Emma replied. She wasn’t so sure about all that. After all, wasn’t Britain the greatest country on earth? Wasn’t it worth fighting for? That’s what her father and teachers had always told her. Still, she’d learned long ago that it was best not to argue with Harry over such matters. He’d only try to strong-arm her into reading one of his dusty old books by that Russian rabble-rouser Vladimir Lenin or the philosopher Karl Marx. Anyway, she loved Harry’s passion and the strength of his opinions. Until she didn’t.
It was her father who changed everything. A ruddy-faced, rotund old man with a grey beard that covered his flabby jowls, Mr Whitworth stood for everything Harry hated.
He was carving the beef for their Sunday roast when the conversation turned to the war. Mr Whitworth, unsurprisingly, thought it was a wonderful thing.
‘It’ll be the making of those lads,’ he said. ‘Nothing like a taste of battle to separate the men from the boys.’
‘But father, surely we don’t need every young man to fight?’ Emma protested. ‘There are other things they can do to serve their country, aren’t there?’
He snorted. ‘Perhaps, but the best of them will fight. I tell you, we’ll have a much easier time of it finding you a husband now. We can ignore any of those saps that aren’t in uniform.’
Typical of her father.
Emma was something of a classical beauty. She had flowing locks of lush golden hair and eyes the same bright blue as the sky on a clear summer’s day. This meant that she got a lot of attention from the young men of the county. Mr Whitworth liked to pretend that the family faced a great challenge in choosing one of her suitors. As his only child, Emma was the heir to the Whitworth fortune, and her husband would instantly become a man of means and influence.
However, despite all his posturing, Mr Whitworth knew she had already found the man she wanted to marry, yet he insisted on acting as if Harry didn’t exist. She’d hoped that in time he would grow to see Harry as she did, but that seemed less and less likely.
Arguing with her father in this mood was a fool’s errand, but Emma couldn’t help herself. Ignoring a warning glance from her mother, she shook her head. ‘That’s nonsense. I know plenty of fine young men who don’t plan to enlist.’
Mr Whitworth shook his head. ‘Poppycock. No man who won’t put his life on the line for his country is worth my daughter’s hand.’
‘Enough!’ He bellowed. ‘No coward will marry my daughter, and that’s the end of it.’
Emma cringed but held her tongue. When her father set his mind on something like this, nothing could stop him. If Harry didn’t join up, he would never bless their marriage.
The next day, she confessed her fears to Harry.
He laughed. ‘Your father is all bark and no bite. I’m sure he’ll change his mind once he calms down.’
‘You don’t know him as I do,’ Emma said, staring at him through wide, desperate eyes. ‘He won’t back down. He’ll make it a point of pride not to.’
Harry shook his head. ‘This is exactly what I was saying the other day. Pride is nothing but trouble. Your father should read more. Perhaps he’ll learn to be more open-minded.’
‘Yes, I’m sure he would,’ Emma snapped back. ‘But that doesn’t help us now. What are we going to do? You’re healthy, tall, strong. You’re exactly the sort of man my father thinks has a duty to serve his country. If you don’t join the army, he will never let us be together.’
Harry waved her fears away. ‘Please. It’s 1914, not 1314. If he doesn’t bless our marriage, we’ll just run away.’
‘I don’t know…’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t tell me you’re afraid of him?’
‘Of course I am! My father is a powerful man with a lot of influence. There’s nowhere we can run that he won’t find us.’
‘There’s always a way,’ Harry said. ‘We’ll leave the country if we have to.’
Seeing that she was still unconvinced, he took her by the hand, his warm brown eyes locking with hers. ‘Nothing will stop us being together, Emma. I won’t let it. Trust me.’
Emma tried to trust him. Truly she did. But she couldn’t. For all his virtues, Harry had always lived in the clouds. If he underestimated her father’s wrath, he might get hurt, and she couldn’t bear that.
A few days later, she had tea with her friend Rachel Butler in Mrs Beaton’s tea rooms. They sat outside on the patio at a metal table nestled among Mrs Beaton’s prized rosebushes. It was her favourite spot, but Emma didn’t have much of an appetite, only sipping her drink and nibbling at a cucumber sandwich. Rachel noticed.
‘What’s wrong, darling?’ she asked, frowning with concern.
Emma told her of her father’s outburst and Harry’s lack of concern, and Rachel let out a tittering laugh.
‘Oh darling, is that all? Well, the solution to that is rather obvious. You must give Harry one of these.’ From her purse, Rachel withdrew a single white feather.
Emma wrinkled her brow. ‘A feather?’
Rachel grinned. ‘Not just any feather. A white feather. The mark of a coward. You can keep that one. I’ve plenty more.’
‘But Harry isn’t a coward,’ Emma protested. ‘He’s the bravest man I know.’
‘That doesn’t matter. What matters is that he believes you think him a coward. That will be enough to make him put on a uniform, I’m sure of it.’
Emma frowned. ‘I don’t know. Harry doesn’t really care what people think about him.’
‘He might not care what people think, but I guarantee he cares what you think. It’s a primal thing for men. They can’t bear to seem weak in front of their sweethearts. Trust me. If you give him that feather, it will solve all your problems.’
Emma turned the feather over in her hands, thinking deeply. ‘Is it truly okay for us to pressure men into uniforms?’
Rachel smiled nonchalantly. ‘Of course, darling, it will be good for them. My father says they’ll all be home by Christmas anyway.’
It was five days between Emma’s tea with Rachel and her next date with Harry, a picnic at Miller’s Pond. They were the longest five days of her life. She woke every morning, determined to give Harry the feather and every evening, she went to sleep, certain that was the worst thing she could possibly do. She swung between the two positions at least a dozen times each day.
Finally, the day of the picnic came, and she still had no idea what to do. She put the feather in and out of her purse more times than she could count, eventually taking it with her to decide at the pond.
When she saw Harry’s beaming face, all thoughts of the feather went out of her head. She sat, and they talked about books, about nature, about all the things that made her love him. Until he mentioned the war.
‘You better watch out,’ he said with a laugh. ‘I heard that Rupert Finch enlisted the other day. I’m sure your father will do his best to set you up with him.’
He thinks this is funny, Emma thought. He actually thinks this is something to joke about.
There was nothing for it. Before she could change her mind, she whipped the feather from her purse and thrust it at him.
Harry stared at it, unmoving, unblinking. ‘Does this mean what I think it means?’
‘It does,’ she said, refusing to meet his eye.
He laughed bitterly and shook his head. ‘So, you buy into all that flag-waving nonsense after all. I thought you were different. I thought you understood. But you’re just like all the other silly little girls who don’t know anything more than what their fathers tell them.’
As he paced around, ranting and raving, Emma feared she’d pushed him too far. She almost came clean. She almost told him that, of course, he wasn’t a coward. To her, he was the bravest man on the earth. If anything, he was too brave. But she didn’t. She said nothing.
Eventually, Harry stopped his pacing and turned to face her, eyes cold and distant.
‘Do you truly think me a coward?’ he whispered.
Not trusting herself to speak, Emma simply nodded.
‘Then I suppose I have no choice.’
Emma heard the pain in his voice and every inch of her being screamed at her to take him in her arms and tell him the truth. Again, she said nothing. And then, it was too late. He was gone, storming off down the lane.
The next day, Harry went to a recruiting station and enlisted. He was commissioned to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Regiment and sent to the military academy at Sandhurst for an accelerated training course. He didn’t tell her any of this. She had to hear it from the village gossip mongers.
All Emma could think of was how he must hate her. But still, when her father learned the news, he said in his gruff voice that ‘Perhaps that Harry fellow is a decent lad after all.’ After hearing that, she dared to hope that this whole charade would be worth it in the end.
With Harry’s future tied to the army, Emma began consuming every scrap of information she could find about the war. What she learned didn’t fill her with confidence, far from it.
The Germans had defeated the British in a battle near the Belgian town of Mons, sparking a headlong retreat across northern France. Eventually, the British and French stopped the German advance at the river Marne, and the war stagnated. Both sides dug in for the long haul. It all sounded far from the grand adventure that everyone had said it would be.
After a few weeks, Harry sent her a scribbled postcard telling her he was shipping out to France and would write to her again when he had the time.
Then came the news she’d been dreading. Another battle had started, this time near Ypres in Belgium. Harry’s regiment would be involved.
That was a week ago. Since then, Emma had come to the post office every single day, waiting for the postcard that would tell her Harry was safe. She dreaded receiving the other letter. The letter nobody wanted to receive, but so many already had.
With her mind at last back in the present, Emma saw that the sky had turned dark. It was about to rain. Deciding to hurry home, she turned onto Rosemary Street, Harry’s street. She used to love coming here to admire his garden, Harry’s mother kept the best array of flowers in the whole village. But she’d stayed away since that day at Miller’s Pond. Harry’s family didn’t think much of her role in pushing him to war. Emma hoped that they’d come to forgive her in time but had decided to give them some space until then.
As she strode down the street, Emma realised that she wasn’t alone. Mrs Baines stood outside her cottage, clutching a telegram in her hand.
Emma’s heart jumped in her chest. A telegram! Of course. How could she have been so foolish? Harry would know that a telegram would be a much faster and more reliable way of letting them know he was safe. She could relax at last.
But something was wrong. Mrs Baines didn’t look happy. Quite the opposite. Her eyes were red-rimmed as if she’d been crying.
A chill went down Emma’s spine.
‘Mrs Baines, what’s wrong?’ she asked, though in her heart, she already knew.
Mrs Baines thrust the telegram towards her. ‘See for yourself.’
Emma looked down at the paper, and sure enough, she saw the dreaded words.
Mrs Baines, we regret to inform you that your son, Second Lieutenant Harold Baines, was killed in action on the-
She read no more. The tears welling in her eyes made sure of that. As the first drops of rain struck her head, Emma fell to her knees and wept.
She didn’t know how she got home, only that somehow she made it. Slamming the front door behind her, she ran straight to her room and crawled into bed. She didn’t come out for weeks.
Her mother and father brought plate after plate of food to her, and plate after plate went untouched. Emma wouldn’t speak a word. She wouldn’t even look at them. She lay all day with her head beneath the sheets, not wanting to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She couldn’t bear to look at the arrogant, childish fool who had cost her Harry his life.
Finally, after two weeks of this, her father brought a small parcel wrapped in brown paper.
‘Mrs Baines came by earlier,’ he said. ‘The army sent her Harry’s personal effects, and she thought you might like this as a memento.’
Emma peeked out from beneath the sheets. She took the parcel. It was light. Very light.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
Her father shrugged. ‘I have no idea. Open it and find out.’
Emma unwrapped it.
Inside was a note in Mrs Baines’ handwriting.
Harry was carrying this when he died. I hope you keep it with you always.
Beneath the note, nestled in a bed of white tissue paper, sat a single feather stained red with Harry’s blood.
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I must have read hundreds of stories at this site by now – and this one is clearly the best so far. “Blood and Cookies” is very good, but the crown belongs here! :) All the elements come together seamlessly and in perfect balance: the use of the pre-WWI enthusiasm, the white feather fad, competing world-views and attitudes of the time. But best is Emma – her interior life, the complex, conflicted way she drifts fatally into condemning the man she loves – the ghastliness of it mirroring the cack-handed stumble into war and its destruction of...
Thank you, Jack! Really glad to hear that you enjoyed it.
Haha, I've been doing some writing for magazine/ journal submissions and other competitions (as well as plotting out a novel) the last few weeks, but I hope to write something else here again soon.
You have any favorite journals? We were just discussing over in discord. Most of my favorites are out of print. Blah. Send me a line if you want to discord: email@example.com
I'm still quite new to the world of fiction journals, so I don't really have any favourites yet. Most of my experience has been with the history ones. I've just sent an email.
Hi Daniel! Congratulations on the short list! This was an incredible piece and well deserved of its ranking. I loved the way you wove the past into the present and that last line was a sucker punch! Nice job!
I loved the way you integrated symbolism while not having it become too precious. I thought you had just the right mix of gritty and emotional. Well done.
Well that came back to bite her. They should have just eloped. Just another wasted life in another ridiculous war. You captured that with blood and vinegar.
What a heartbreaking story! I loved the ending, in that the feather, being a symbol of cowardice, ended up back with Emma. Perhaps she was the coward for not sticking up to her father. Well done!
Loved this poignant ending! A very powerful use of the bloodstained feather being returned to Emma at the end!
Great pacing, completely held my attention. I liked how it all focused on the white feather in the last half, which was a great symbol, and a twist which captured a lot of sorrow. I appreciated the anti-war message as well, especially with the current war fervour in the air in Europe, its good to remember this isn't the first time. Also quite impressive you captured a tone and a voice that matches the world war 1 era, thats not an easy feat. Well done;)
Thank you very much! I definitely wanted to capture the wider horrors of war, so I'm really glad that you appreciated that aspect of it!
Intense! I think we all knew that this wouldn't end well, but, like Emma, the reader hoped it wouldn't end this way until hope was no longer possible.
Thank you! That's exactly the sort of feeling I was aiming to create!
Oh man! What a story! I learned something new from reading this--about white feathers during the war. I never knew any of that, so props for plucking an interesting fact from the past and turning it into a great story. Well done on dragging us into the inner turmoil of this poor girl who just want to please her family, to please her fiancé, support her country, find comradery with a girl friend, and her involvement leaves her feeling guilty, maybe forever. I really liked this phrase: "the patchwork of treaties that crisscrossed the contin...
Thank you very much! That sense of inner turmoil is absolutely something that I tried to build throughout the piece so I'm really happy that you noticed it.
An enjoyable, dramatic story. The title caught my eye and I was wondering if it would be about *those* white feathers. I liked Emma's journey here. She's young, she doesn't quite know who to believe, and she goes back and forth on the arguments. The tragedy then is that the only thing she didn't listen to was her own heart, which leads to the ironic situation where she hands him a white feather, but is herself too afraid to admit the truth to him. The ending is cruel, but we can't really blame Mrs. Baines for it. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for your insightful comments! I'm glad that you enjoyed it!
Congratulations on the shortlist!
Thank you so much!
Daniel I don't know how I missed this story of yours but it is really wonderful. I love how you have woven the humanity into history. The story is powerful and the prose is wonderful. All the stories you write with an historical link are my favorites-this one included.
This is an excellent story.
I loved it, i know that it was a feather but that punch in the end Man!!!! i m touched and thrilled. Good one keep it up
I saw it coming, but in the end, it still hurt; otherwise, it was a fantastic story. Emily's influence was so surreal. In this day and age, no one would force me into a war. And the end, with the blood-stained flower, was sad but a beautiful touch.
Downright painful. Well done. I'll be looking for more.
Boom. Congratulations. One of the better plots I've seen on reedsy didn't make shortlist. Your story has plot, character, and beauty.
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The title pulled me in, and the story kept me going. Great stuff.
Bravo. The way you let it unfold, bravo. Even if you had gone with a lighter ending... Bravo. This ranks up with Last Leaf by O'Henry. Ok. You're ready. Start selling your stories for more than 250.
Thank you very much! I really appreciate that!