WILLIAM PEARL did not leave a great deal of money when he died, and his will was a simple one. With the exception of a few small bequests to relatives, he left all his property to his wife.
The solicitor and Mrs Pearl went over it together in the solicitor’s office, and when the business was completed, the widow got up to leave. At that point, the solicitor took a sealed envelope from the folder on his desk and held it out to his client.
“I have been instructed to give you this,” he said. “Your husband sent it to us shortly before he passed away.” The solicitor was pale and prim, and out of respect for a widow he kept his head on one side as he spoke, looking downward. “It appears that it might be something personal, Mrs Pearl. No doubt you’d like to take it home with you and read it in privacy.”
Mrs Pearl accepted the envelope and went out into the street. She paused on the pavement, feeling the thing with her fingers. A letter of farewell from William? Probably, yes. A formal letter. It was bound to be formal – stiff and formal. The man was incapable of acting otherwise. He had never done anything informal in his life.
My dear Mary, I trust that you will not permit my departure from this world to upset you too much, but that you will continue to observe those precepts which have guided you so well during our partnership together. Be diligent and dignified in all things. Be thrifty with your money. Be very careful that you do not – .. et cetera, et cetera.
A typical William letter.
Or was it possible that he might have broken down at the last moment and written her something beautiful? Maybe this was a beautiful tender message, a sort of love letter, a lovely warm note of thanks to her for giving him thirty years of her life and for ironing a million shirts and cooking a million meals and making a million beds, something that she could read over and over again, once a
day at least, and she would keep it for ever in the box on the dressing-table together with her brooches.
There is no knowing what people will do when they are about to die, Mrs Pearl told herself, and she tucked the envelope under her arm and hurried home.
She let herself in the front door and went straight to the living-room and sat down on the sofa without removing her hat or coat. Then she opened the envelope and drew out the contents. These consisted, she saw, of some fifteen or twenty sheets of lined white paper, folded over once and held together at the top left-hhnd corner by a clip. Each sheet was covered with the small, neat, forward-sloping writing that she knew so well, but when she noticed how much of it there was, and in what a neat businesslike manner it was written, and how the first page didn’t even begin in the nice way a letter should, she began to get suspicious.
She looked away. She lit herself a cigarette. She took one puff and laid the cigarette in the ashtray.
If this is about what I am beginning to suspect it is about, she told herself, then I don’t want to read it.
Can one refuse to read a letter from the dead?
She glanced over at William’s empty chair on the other side of the fireplace. It was a big brown leather armchair, and there was a depression on the seat of it, made by his buttocks over the years. Higher up, on the backrest, there was a dark oval stain on the leather where his head had rested.