THE FOUR FEATHERS
A. E. W. MASON
Author of "Miranda of the Balcony," "The Courtship of Morrice Buckler," Etc.
New York The MacMillan Company London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd. 1903 All rights reserved Copyright, 1901, By A. E. W. Mason. Copyright, 1902, By The MacMillan Company. Set up and electrotyped October, 1902. Reprinted November, December, 1902; January, 1903; February, March, 1903. Norwood Press J. S. Cushing & Co.—Berwick & Smith Norwood Mass. U.S.A.
To MISS ELSPETH ANGELA CAMPBELL June 19, 1902.
I. A Crimean Night
II. Captain Trench and a Telegram
III. The Last Ride Together
IV. The Ball at Lennon House
V. The Pariah
VI. Harry Feversham's Plan
VII. The Last Reconnaissance
VIII. Lieutenant Sutch is tempted to lie
IX. At Glenalla
X. The Wells of Obak
XI. Durrance hears News of Feversham
XII. Durrance sharpens his Wits
XIII. Durrance begins to see
XIV. Captain Willoughby reappears
XV. The Story of the First Feather
XVI. Captain Willoughby retires
XVII. The Musoline Overture
XVIII. The Answer to the Overture
XIX. Mrs. Adair interferes
XX. West and East
XXI. Ethne makes Another Slip
XXII. Durrance lets his Cigar go out
XXIII. Mrs. Adair makes her Apology
XXIV. On the Nile
XXV. Lieutenant Sutch comes off the Half-pay List
XXVI. General Feversham's Portraits are appeased
XXVII. The House of Stone
XXVIII. Plans of Escape
XXIX. Colonel Trench assumes a Knowledge of Chemistry
XXX. The Last of the Southern Cross
XXXI. Feversham returns to Ramelton
XXXII. In the Church at Glenalla
XXXIII. Ethne again plays the Musoline Overture
XXXIV. The End
THE FOUR FEATHERS
[Footnote 1: The character of Harry Feversham is developed from a short story by the author, originally printed in the Illustrated London News, and since republished.]
A CRIMEAN NIGHT
Lieutenant Sutch was the first of General Feversham's guests to reach Broad Place. He arrived about five o'clock on an afternoon of sunshine in mid June, and the old red-brick house, lodged on a southern slope of the Surrey hills, was glowing from a dark forest depth of pines with the warmth of a rare jewel. Lieutenant Sutch limped across the hall, where the portraits of the Fevershams rose one above the other to the ceiling, and went out on to the stone-flagged terrace at the back. There he found his host sitting erect like a boy, and gazing southward toward the Sussex Downs.
"How's the leg?" asked General Feversham, as he rose briskly from his chair. He was a small wiry man, and, in spite of his white hairs, alert. But the alertness was of the body. A bony face, with a high narrow forehead and steel-blue inexpressive eyes, suggested a barrenness of mind.
"It gave me trouble during the winter," replied Sutch. "But that was to be expected." General Feversham nodded, and for a little while both men were silent. From the terrace the ground fell steeply to a wide level plain of brown earth and emerald fields and dark clumps of trees. From this plain voices rose through the sunshine, small but very clear. Far away toward Horsham a coil of white smoke from a train snaked rapidly in and out amongst the trees; and on the horizon rose the Downs, patched with white chalk.
"I thought that I should find you here," said Sutch.
"It was my wife's favourite corner," answered Feversham in a quite emotionless voice. "She would sit here by the hour. She had a queer liking for wide and empty spaces."
"Yes," said Sutch. "She had imagination. Her thoughts could people them."
General Feversham glanced at his companion as though he hardly understood. But he asked no questions. What he did not understand he habitually let slip from his mind as not worth comprehension. He spoke at once upon a different topic.
"There will be a leaf out of our table to-night."
"Yes. Collins, Barberton, and Vaughan went this winter. Well, we are all permanently shelved upon the world's half-pay list as it is. The obituary column is just the last formality which gazettes us out of the service altogether," and Sutch stretched out and eased his crippled leg, which fourteen years ago that day had been crushed and twisted in the fall of a scaling-ladder.
"I am glad that you came before the others," continued Feversham. "I would like to take your opinion. This day is more to me than the anniversary of our attack upon the Redan. At the very moment when we were standing under arms in the dark—"
"To the west of the quarries; I remember," interrupted Sutch, with a deep breath. "How should one forget?"
"At that very moment Harry was born in this house. I thought, therefore, that if you did not object, he might join us to-night. He happens to be at home. He will, of course, enter the service, and he might learn something, perhaps, which afterward will be of use—one never knows."
"By all means," said Sutch, with alacrity. For since his visits to General Feversham were limited to the occasion of these anniversary dinners, he had never yet seen Harry Feversham.
Sutch had for many years been puzzled as to the qualities in General Feversham which had attracted Muriel Graham, a woman as remarkable for the refinement of her intellect as for the beauty of her person; and he could never find an explanation. He had to be content with his knowledge that for some mysterious reason she had married this man so much older than herself and so unlike to her in character. Personal courage and an indomitable self-confidence were the chief, indeed the only, qualities which sprang to light in General Feversham. Lieutenant Sutch went back in thought over twenty years, as he sat on his garden-chair, to a time before he had taken part, as an officer of the Naval Brigade, in that unsuccessful onslaught on the Redan. He remembered a season in London to which he had come fresh from the China station; and he was curious to see Harry Feversham. He did not admit that it was more than the natural curiosity of a man who, disabled in comparative youth, had made a hobby out of the study of human nature. He was interested to see whether the lad took after his mother or his father—that was all.
So that night Harry Feversham took a place at the dinner-table and listened to the stories which his elders told, while Lieutenant Sutch watched him. The stories were all of that dark winter in the Crimea, and a fresh story was always in the telling before its predecessor was ended. They were stories of death, of hazardous exploits, of the pinch of famine, and the chill of snow. But they were told in clipped words and with a matter-of-fact tone, as though the men who related them were only conscious of them as far-off things; and there was seldom a comment more pronounced than a mere "That's curious," or an exclamation more significant than a laugh.
But Harry Feversham sat listening as though the incidents thus carelessly narrated were happening actually at that moment and within the walls of that room. His dark eyes—the eyes of his mother—turned with each story from speaker to speaker, and waited, wide open and fixed, until the last word was spoken. He listened fascinated and enthralled. And so vividly did the changes of expression shoot and quiver across his face, that it seemed to Sutch the lad must actually hear the drone of bullets in the air, actually resist the stunning shock of a charge, actually ride down in the thick of a squadron to where guns screeched out a tongue of flame from a fog. Once a major of artillery spoke of the suspense of the hours between the parading of the troops before a battle and the first command to advance; and Harry's shoulders worked under the intolerable strain of those lagging minutes.
But he did more than work his shoulders. He threw a single furtive, wavering glance backwards; and Lieutenant Sutch was startled, and indeed more than startled,—he was pained. For this after all was Muriel Graham's boy.
The look was too familiar a one to Sutch. He had seen it on the faces of recruits during their first experience of a battle too often for him to misunderstand it. And one picture in particular rose before his mind,—an advancing square at Inkermann, and a tall big soldier rushing forward from the line in the eagerness of his attack, and then stopping suddenly as though he suddenly understood that he was alone, and had to meet alone the charge of a mounted Cossack. Sutch remembered very clearly the fatal wavering glance which the big soldier had thrown backward toward his companions,—a glance accompanied by a queer sickly smile. He remembered too, with equal vividness, its consequence. For though the soldier carried a loaded musket and a bayonet locked to the muzzle, he had without an effort of self-defence received the Cossack's lance-thrust in his throat.
Sutch glanced hurriedly about the table, afraid that General Feversham, or that some one of his guests, should have remarked the same look and the same smile upon Harry's face. But no one had eyes for the lad; each visitor was waiting too eagerly for an opportunity to tell a story of his own. Sutch drew a breath of relief and turned to Harry. But the boy was sitting with his elbows on the cloth and his head propped between his hands, lost to the glare of the room and its glitter of silver, constructing again out of the swift succession of anecdotes a world of cries and wounds, and maddened riderless chargers and men writhing in a fog of cannon-smoke. The curtest, least graphic description of the biting days and nights in the trenches set the lad shivering. Even his face grew pinched, as though the iron frost of that winter was actually eating into his bones. Sutch touched him lightly on the elbow.
"You renew those days for me," said he. "Though the heat is dripping down the windows, I feel the chill of the Crimea."
Harry roused himself from his absorption.
"The stories renew them," said he.
"No. It is you listening to the stories."
And before Harry could reply, General Feversham's voice broke sharply in from the head of the table:—
"Harry, look at the clock!"
At once all eyes were turned upon the lad. The hands of the clock made the acutest of angles. It was close upon midnight; and from eight, without so much as a word or a question, he had sat at the dinner-table listening. Yet even now he rose with reluctance.
"Must I go, father?" he asked, and the general's guests intervened in a chorus. The conversation was clear gain to the lad, a first taste of powder which might stand him in good stead afterwards.
"Besides, it's the boy's birthday," added the major of artillery. "He wants to stay; that's plain. You wouldn't find a youngster of fourteen sit all these hours without a kick of the foot against the table-leg unless the conversation entertained him. Let him stay, Feversham!"
For once General Feversham relaxed the iron discipline under which the boy lived.
"Very well," said he. "Harry shall have an hour's furlough from his bed. A single hour won't make much difference."
Harry's eyes turned toward his father, and just for a moment rested upon his face with a curious steady gaze. It seemed to Sutch that they uttered a question, and, rightly or wrongly, he interpreted the question into words:—
"Are you blind?"
But General Feversham was already talking to his neighbours, and Harry quietly sat down, and again propping his chin upon his hands, listened with all his soul. Yet he was not entertained; rather he was enthralled; he sat quiet under the compulsion of a spell. His face became unnaturally white, his eyes unnaturally large, while the flames of the candles shone ever redder and more blurred through a blue haze of tobacco smoke, and the level of the wine grew steadily lower in the decanters.
Thus half of that one hour's furlough was passed; and then General Feversham, himself jogged by the unlucky mention of a name, suddenly blurted out in his jerky fashion:—
"Lord Wilmington. One of the best names in England, if you please. Did you ever see his house in Warwickshire? Every inch of the ground you would think would have a voice to bid him play the man, if only in remembrance of his fathers.... It seemed incredible and mere camp rumour, but the rumour grew. If it was whispered at the Alma, it was spoken aloud at Inkermann, it was shouted at Balaclava. Before Sebastopol the hideous thing was proved. Wilmington was acting as galloper to his general. I believe upon my soul the general chose him for the duty, so that the fellow might set himself right. There were three hundred yards of bullet-swept flat ground, and a message to be carried across them. Had Wilmington toppled off his horse on the way, why, there were the whispers silenced for ever. Had he ridden through alive he earned distinction besides. But he didn't dare; he refused! Imagine it if you can! He sat shaking on his horse and declined. You should have seen the general. His face turned the colour of that Burgundy. 'No doubt you have a previous engagement,' he said, in the politest voice you ever heard—just that, not a word of abuse. A previous engagement on the battlefield! For the life of me, I could hardly help laughing. But it was a tragic business for Wilmington. He was broken, of course, and slunk back to London. Every house was closed to him; he dropped out of his circle like a lead bullet you let slip out of your hand into the sea. The very women in Piccadilly spat if he spoke to them; and he blew his brains out in a back bedroom off the Haymarket. Curious that, eh? He hadn't the pluck to face the bullets when his name was at stake, yet he could blow his own brains out afterwards."
Lieutenant Sutch chanced to look at the clock as the story came to an end. It was now a quarter to one. Harry Feversham had still a quarter of an hour's furlough, and that quarter of an hour was occupied by a retired surgeon-general with a great wagging beard, who sat nearly opposite to the boy.
"I can tell you an incident still more curious," he said. "The man in this case had never been under fire before, but he was of my own profession. Life and death were part of his business. Nor was he really in any particular danger. The affair happened during a hill campaign in India. We were encamped in a valley, and a few Pathans used to lie out on the hillside at night and take long shots into the camp. A bullet ripped through the canvas of the hospital tent—that was all. The surgeon crept out to his own quarters, and his orderly discovered him half-an-hour afterward lying in his blood stone-dead."
"Hit?" exclaimed the major.
"Not a bit of it," said the surgeon. "He had quietly opened his instrument-case in the dark, taken out a lancet, and severed his femoral artery. Sheer panic, do you see, at the whistle of a bullet."
Even upon these men, case-hardened to horrors, the incident related in its bald simplicity wrought its effect. From some there broke a half-uttered exclamation of disbelief; others moved restlessly in their chairs with a sort of physical discomfort, because a man had sunk so far below humanity. Here an officer gulped his wine, there a second shook his shoulders as though to shake the knowledge off as a dog shakes water. There was only one in all that company who sat perfectly still in the silence which followed upon the story. That one was the boy, Harry Feversham.
He sat with his hands now clenched upon his knees and leaning forward a little across the table toward the surgeon, his cheeks white as paper, his eyes burning, and burning with ferocity. He had the look of a dangerous animal in the trap. His body was gathered, his muscles taut. Sutch had a fear that the lad meant to leap across the table and strike with all his strength in the savagery of despair. He had indeed reached out a restraining hand when General Feversham's matter-of-fact voice intervened, and the boy's attitude suddenly relaxed.
"Queer incomprehensible things happen. Here are two of them. You can only say they are the truth and pray God you may forget 'em. But you can't explain, for you can't understand."
Sutch was moved to lay his hand upon Harry's shoulder.
"Can you?" he asked, and regretted the question almost before it was spoken. But it was spoken, and Harry's eyes turned swiftly toward Sutch, and rested upon his face, not, however, with any betrayal of guilt, but quietly, inscrutably. Nor did he answer the question, although it was answered in a fashion by General Feversham.
"Harry understand!" exclaimed the general, with a snort of indignation. "How should he? He's a Feversham."
The question, which Harry's glance had mutely put before, Sutch in the same mute way repeated. "Are you blind?" his eyes asked of General Feversham. Never had he heard an untruth so demonstrably untrue. A mere look at the father and the son proved it so. Harry Feversham wore his father's name, but he had his mother's dark and haunted eyes, his mother's breadth of forehead, his mother's delicacy of profile, his mother's imagination. It needed perhaps a stranger to recognise the truth. The father had been so long familiar with his son's aspect that it had no significance to his mind.
"Look at the clock, Harry."
The hour's furlough had run out. Harry rose from his chair, and drew a breath.
"Good night, sir," he said, and walked to the door.
The servants had long since gone to bed; and, as Harry opened the door, the hall gaped black like the mouth of night. For a second or two the boy hesitated upon the threshold, and seemed almost to shrink back into the lighted room as though in that dark void peril awaited him. And peril did—the peril of his thoughts.
He stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. The decanter was sent again upon its rounds; there was a popping of soda-water bottles; the talk revolved again in its accustomed groove. Harry was in an instant forgotten by all but Sutch. The lieutenant, although he prided himself upon his impartial and disinterested study of human nature, was the kindliest of men. He had more kindliness than observation by a great deal. Moreover, there were special reasons which caused him to take an interest in Harry Feversham. He sat for a little while with the air of a man profoundly disturbed. Then, acting upon an impulse, he went to the door, opened it noiselessly, as noiselessly passed out, and, without so much as a click of the latch, closed the door behind him.
And this is what he saw: Harry Feversham, holding in the centre of the hall a lighted candle high above his head, and looking up toward the portraits of the Fevershams as they mounted the walls and were lost in the darkness of the roof. A muffled sound of voices came from the other side of the door panels, but the hall itself was silent. Harry stood remarkably still, and the only thing which moved at all was the yellow flame of the candle as it flickered apparently in some faint draught. The light wavered across the portraits, glowing here upon a red coat, glittering there upon a corselet of steel. For there was not one man's portrait upon the walls which did not glisten with the colours of a uniform, and there were the portraits of many men. Father and son, the Fevershams had been soldiers from the very birth of the family. Father and son, in lace collars and bucket boots, in Ramillies wigs and steel breastplates, in velvet coats, with powder on their hair, in shakos and swallow-tails, in high stocks and frogged coats, they looked down upon this last Feversham, summoning him to the like service. They were men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship—lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature, thin-lipped, with firm chins and straight, level mouths, narrow foreheads, and the steel-blue inexpressive eyes; men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination; sturdy men, a little wanting in delicacy, hardly conspicuous for intellect; to put it frankly, men rather stupid—all of them, in a word, first-class fighting men, but not one of them a first-class soldier.
But Harry Feversham plainly saw none of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous and terrible. He stood before them in the attitude of a criminal before his judges, reading his condemnation in their cold unchanging eyes. Lieutenant Sutch understood more clearly why the flame of the candle flickered. There was no draught in the hall, but the boy's hand shook. And finally, as though he heard the mute voices of his judges delivering sentence and admitted its justice, he actually bowed to the portraits on the wall. As he raised his head, he saw Lieutenant Sutch in the embrasure of the doorway.
He did not start, he uttered no word; he let his eyes quietly rest upon Sutch and waited. Of the two it was the man who was embarrassed.
"Harry," he said, and in spite of his embarrassment he had the tact to use the tone and the language of one addressing not a boy, but a comrade equal in years, "we meet for the first time to-night. But I knew your mother a long time ago. I like to think that I have the right to call her by that much misused word 'friend.' Have you anything to tell me?"
"Nothing," said Harry.
"The mere telling sometimes lightens a trouble."
"It is kind of you. There is nothing."
Lieutenant Sutch was rather at a loss. The lad's loneliness made a strong appeal to him. For lonely the boy could not but be, set apart as he was, no less unmistakably in mind as in feature, from his father and his father's fathers. Yet what more could he do? His tact again came to his aid. He took his card-case from his pocket.
"You will find my address upon this card. Perhaps some day you will give me a few days of your company. I can offer you on my side a day or two's hunting."
A spasm of pain shook for a fleeting moment the boy's steady inscrutable face. It passed, however, swiftly as it had come.
"Thank you, sir," Harry monotonously repeated. "You are very kind."
"And if ever you want to talk over a difficult question with an older man, I am at your service."
He spoke purposely in a formal voice, lest Harry with a boy's sensitiveness should think he laughed. Harry took the card and repeated his thanks. Then he went upstairs to bed.
Lieutenant Sutch waited uncomfortably in the hall until the light of the candle had diminished and disappeared. Something was amiss, he was very sure. There were words which he should have spoken to the boy, but he had not known how to set about the task. He returned to the dining room, and with a feeling that he was almost repairing his omissions, he filled his glass and called for silence.
"Gentlemen," he said, "this is June 15th," and there was great applause and much rapping on the table. "It is the anniversary of our attack upon the Redan. It is also Harry Feversham's birthday. For us, our work is done. I ask you to drink the health of one of the youngsters who are ousting us. His work lies before him. The traditions of the Feversham family are very well known to us. May Harry Feversham carry them on! May he add distinction to a distinguished name!"
At once all that company was on its feet.
The name was shouted with so hearty a good-will that the glasses on the table rang. "Harry Feversham, Harry Feversham," the cry was repeated and repeated, while old General Feversham sat in his chair with a face aflush with pride. And a boy a minute afterward in a room high up in the house heard the muffled words of a chorus—
For he's a jolly good fellow, For he's a jolly good fellow, For he's a jolly good fellow, And so say all of us,
and believed the guests upon this Crimean night were drinking his father's health. He turned over in his bed and lay shivering. He saw in his mind a broken officer slinking at night in the shadows of the London streets. He pushed back the flap of a tent and stooped over a man lying stone-dead in his blood, with an open lancet clinched in his right hand. And he saw that the face of the broken officer and the face of the dead surgeon were one—and that one face, the face of Harry Feversham.
CAPTAIN TRENCH AND A TELEGRAM
Thirteen years later, and in the same month of June, Harry Feversham's health was drunk again, but after a quieter fashion and in a smaller company. The company was gathered in a room high up in a shapeless block of buildings which frowns like a fortress above Westminster. A stranger crossing St. James's Park southwards, over the suspension bridge, at night, who chanced to lift his eyes and see suddenly the tiers of lighted windows towering above him to so precipitous a height, might be brought to a stop with the fancy that here in the heart of London was a mountain and the gnomes at work. Upon the tenth floor of this building Harry had taken a flat during his year's furlough from his regiment in India; and it was in the dining room of this flat that the simple ceremony took place. The room was furnished in a dark and restful fashion; and since the chill of the weather belied the calendar, a comfortable fire blazed in the hearth. A bay window, over which the blinds had not been lowered, commanded London.
There were four men smoking about the dinner-table. Harry Feversham was unchanged, except for a fair moustache, which contrasted with his dark hair, and the natural consequences of growth. He was now a man of middle height, long-limbed, and well-knit like an athlete, but his features had not altered since that night when they had been so closely scrutinised by Lieutenant Sutch. Of his companions two were brother-officers on leave in England, like himself, whom he had that afternoon picked up at his club,—Captain Trench, a small man, growing bald, with a small, sharp, resourceful face and black eyes of a remarkable activity, and Lieutenant Willoughby, an officer of quite a different stamp. A round forehead, a thick snub nose, and a pair of vacant and protruding eyes gave to him an aspect of invincible stupidity. He spoke but seldom, and never to the point, but rather to some point long forgotten which he had since been laboriously revolving in his mind; and he continually twisted a moustache, of which the ends curled up toward his eyes with a ridiculous ferocity,—a man whom one would dismiss from mind as of no consequence upon a first thought, and take again into one's consideration upon a second. For he was born stubborn as well as stupid; and the harm which his stupidity might do, his stubbornness would hinder him from admitting. He was not a man to be persuaded; having few ideas, he clung to them. It was no use to argue with him, for he did not hear the argument, but behind his vacant eyes all the while he turned over his crippled thoughts and was satisfied. The fourth at the table was Durrance, a lieutenant of the East Surrey Regiment, and Feversham's friend, who had come in answer to a telegram.
This was June of the year 1882, and the thoughts of civilians turned toward Egypt with anxiety; those of soldiers, with an eager anticipation. Arabi Pasha, in spite of threats, was steadily strengthening the fortifications of Alexandria, and already a long way to the south, the other, the great danger, was swelling like a thunder-cloud. A year had passed since a young, slight, and tall Dongolawi, Mohammed Ahmed, had marched through the villages of the White Nile, preaching with the fire of a Wesley the coming of a Saviour. The passionate victims of the Turkish tax-gatherer had listened, had heard the promise repeated in the whispers of the wind in the withered grass, had found the holy names imprinted even upon the eggs they gathered up. In 1882 Mohammed had declared himself that Saviour, and had won his first battles against the Turks.
"There will be trouble," said Trench, and the sentence was the text on which three of the four men talked. In a rare interval, however, the fourth, Harry Feversham, spoke upon a different subject.
"I am very glad you were all able to dine with me to-night. I telegraphed to Castleton as well, an officer of ours," he explained to Durrance, "but he was dining with a big man in the War Office, and leaves for Scotland afterwards, so that he could not come. I have news of a sort."
The three men leaned forward, their minds still full of the dominant subject. But it was not about the prospect of war that Harry Feversham had news to speak.
"I only reached London this morning from Dublin," he said with a shade of embarrassment. "I have been some weeks in Dublin."
Durrance lifted his eyes from the tablecloth and looked quietly at his friend.
"Yes?" he asked steadily.
"I have come back engaged to be married."
Durrance lifted his glass to his lips.
"Well, here's luck to you, Harry," he said, and that was all. The wish, indeed, was almost curtly expressed, but there was nothing wanting in it to Feversham's ears. The friendship between these two men was not one in which affectionate phrases had any part. There was, in truth, no need of such. Both men were securely conscious of it; they estimated it at its true, strong value; it was a helpful instrument, which would not wear out, put into their hands for a hard, lifelong use; but it was not, and never had been, spoken of between them. Both men were grateful for it, as for a rare and undeserved gift; yet both knew that it might entail an obligation of sacrifice. But the sacrifices, were they needful, would be made, and they would not be mentioned. It may be, indeed, that the very knowledge of their friendship's strength constrained them to a particular reticence in their words to one another.
"Thank you, Jack!" said Feversham. "I am glad of your good wishes. It was you who introduced me to Ethne; I cannot forget it."
Durrance set his glass down without any haste. There followed a moment of silence, during which he sat with his eyes upon the tablecloth, and his hands resting on the table edge.
"Yes," he said in a level voice. "I did you a good turn then."
He seemed on the point of saying more, and doubtful how to say it. But Captain Trench's sharp, quick, practical voice, a voice which fitted the man who spoke, saved him his pains.
"Will this make any difference?" asked Trench.
Feversham replaced his cigar between his lips.
"You mean, shall I leave the service?" he asked slowly. "I don't know;" and Durrance seized the opportunity to rise from the table and cross to the window, where he stood with his back to his companions. Feversham took the abrupt movement for a reproach, and spoke to Durrance's back, not to Trench.
"I don't know," he repeated. "It will need thought. There is much to be said. On the one side, of course, there's my father, my career, such as it is. On the other hand, there is her father, Dermod Eustace."
"He wishes you to chuck your commission?" asked Willoughby.
"He has no doubt the Irishman's objection to constituted authority," said Trench, with a laugh. "But need you subscribe to it, Feversham?"
"It is not merely that." It was still to Durrance's back that he addressed his excuses. "Dermod is old, his estates are going to ruin, and there are other things. You know, Jack?" The direct appeal he had to repeat, and even then Durrance answered it absently:—
"Yes, I know," and he added, like one quoting a catch-word. "If you want any whiskey, rap twice on the floor with your foot. The servants understand."
"Precisely," said Feversham. He continued, carefully weighing his words, and still intently looking across the shoulders of his companions to his friend:—
"Besides, there is Ethne herself. Dermod for once did an appropriate thing when he gave her that name. For she is of her country, and more, of her county. She has the love of it in her bones. I do not think that she could be quite happy in India, or indeed in any place which was not within reach of Donegal, the smell of its peat, its streams, and the brown friendliness of its hills. One has to consider that."
He waited for an answer, and getting none went on again. Durrance, however, had no thought of reproach in his mind. He knew that Feversham was speaking,—he wished very much that he would continue to speak for a little while,—but he paid no heed to what was said. He stood looking steadfastly out of the windows. Over against him was the glare from Pall Mall striking upward to the sky, and the chains of light banked one above the other as the town rose northward, and a rumble as of a million carriages was in his ears. At his feet, very far below, lay St. James's Park, silent and black, a quiet pool of darkness in the midst of glitter and noise. Durrance had a great desire to escape out of this room into its secrecy. But that he could not do without remark. Therefore he kept his back turned to his companion, and leaned his forehead against the window, and hoped his friend would continue to talk. For he was face to face with one of the sacrifices which must not be mentioned, and which no sign must betray.
Feversham did continue, and if Durrance did not listen, on the other hand Captain Trench gave to him his closest attention. But it was evident that Harry Feversham was giving reasons seriously considered. He was not making excuses, and in the end Captain Trench was satisfied.
"Well, I drink to you, Feversham," he said, "with all the proper sentiments."
"I too, old man," said Willoughby, obediently following his senior's lead.
Thus they drank their comrade's health, and as their empty glasses rattled on the table, there came a knock upon the door.
The two officers looked up. Durrance turned about from the window. Feversham said, "Come in;" and his servant brought in to him a telegram.
Feversham tore open the envelope carelessly, as carelessly read through the telegram, and then sat very still, with his eyes upon the slip of pink paper and his face grown at once extremely grave. Thus he sat for an appreciable time, not so much stunned as thoughtful. And in the room there was a complete silence. Feversham's three guests averted their eyes. Durrance turned again to his window; Willoughby twisted his moustache and gazed intently upward at the ceiling; Captain Trench shifted his chair round and stared into the glowing fire, and each man's attitude expressed a certain suspense. It seemed that sharp upon the heels of Feversham's good news calamity had come knocking at the door.
"There is no answer," said Harry, and fell to silence again. Once he raised his head and looked at Trench as though he had a mind to speak. But he thought the better of it, and so dropped again to the consideration of this message. And in a moment or two the silence was sharply interrupted, but not by any one of the expectant motionless three men seated within the room. The interruption came from without.
From the parade ground of Wellington Barracks the drums and fifes sounding the tattoo shrilled through the open window with a startling clearness like a sharp summons, and diminished as the band marched away across the gravel and again grew loud. Feversham did not change his attitude, but the look upon his face was now that of a man listening, and listening thoughtfully, just as he had read thoughtfully. In the years which followed, that moment was to recur again and again to the recollection of each of Harry's three guests. The lighted room, with the bright homely fire, the open window overlooking the myriad lamps of London, Harry Feversham seated with the telegram spread before him, the drums and fifes calling loudly, and then dwindling to music very small and pretty—music which beckoned where a moment ago it had commanded: all these details made up a picture of which the colours were not to fade by any lapse of time, although its significance was not apprehended now.
It was remembered that Feversham rose abruptly from his chair, just before the tattoo ceased. He crumpled the telegram loosely in his hands, tossed it into the fire, and then, leaning his back against the chimney-piece and upon one side of the fireplace, said again:—
"I don't know;" as though he had thrust that message, whatever it might be, from his mind, and was summing up in this indefinite way the argument which had gone before. Thus that long silence was broken, and a spell was lifted. But the fire took hold upon the telegram and shook it, so that it moved like a thing alive and in pain. It twisted, and part of it unrolled, and for a second lay open and smooth of creases, lit up by the flame and as yet untouched; so that two or three words sprang, as it were, out of a yellow glare of fire and were legible. Then the flame seized upon that smooth part too, and in a moment shrivelled it into black tatters. But Captain Trench was all this while staring into the fire.
"You return to Dublin, I suppose?" said Durrance. He had moved back again into the room. Like his companions, he was conscious of an unexplained relief.
"To Dublin? No; I go to Donegal in three weeks' time. There is to be a dance. It is hoped you will come."
"I am not sure that I can manage it. There is just a chance, I believe, should trouble come in the East, that I may go out on the staff." The talk thus came round again to the chances of peace and war, and held in that quarter till the boom of the Westminster clock told that the hour was eleven. Captain Trench rose from his seat on the last stroke; Willoughby and Durrance followed his example.
"I shall see you to-morrow," said Durrance to Feversham.
"As usual," replied Harry; and his three guests descended from his rooms and walked across the Park together. At the corner of Pall Mall, however, they parted company, Durrance mounting St. James's Street, while Trench and Willoughby crossed the road into St. James's Square. There Trench slipped his arm through Willoughby's, to Willoughby's surprise, for Trench was an undemonstrative man.
"You know Castleton's address?" he asked.
"Albemarle Street," Willoughby answered, and added the number.
"He leaves Euston at twelve o'clock. It is now ten minutes past eleven. Are you curious, Willoughby? I confess to curiosity. I am an inquisitive methodical person, and when a man gets a telegram bidding him tell Trench something and he tells Trench nothing, I am curious as a philosopher to know what that something is! Castleton is the only other officer of our regiment in London. It is likely, therefore, that the telegram came from Castleton. Castleton, too, was dining with a big man from the War Office. I think that if we take a hansom to Albemarle Street, we shall just catch Castleton upon his door-step."
Mr. Willoughby, who understood very little of Trench's meaning, nevertheless cordially agreed to the proposal.
"I think it would be prudent," said he, and he hailed a passing cab. A moment later the two men were driving to Albemarle Street.
THE LAST RIDE TOGETHER
Durrance, meanwhile, walked to his lodging alone, remembering a day, now two years since, when by a curious whim of old Dermod Eustace he had been fetched against his will to the house by the Lennon River in Donegal, and there, to his surprise, had been made acquainted with Dermod's daughter Ethne. For she surprised all who had first held speech with the father. Durrance had stayed for a night in the house, and through that evening she had played upon her violin, seated with her back toward her audience, as was her custom when she played, lest a look or a gesture should interrupt the concentration of her thoughts. The melodies which she had played rang in his ears now. For the girl possessed the gift of music, and the strings of her violin spoke to the questions of her bow. There was in particular an overture—the Melusine overture—which had the very sob of the waves. Durrance had listened wondering, for the violin had spoken to him of many things of which the girl who played it could know nothing. It had spoken of long perilous journeys and the faces of strange countries; of the silver way across moonlit seas; of the beckoning voices from the under edges of the desert. It had taken a deeper, a more mysterious tone. It had told of great joys, quite unattainable, and of great griefs too, eternal, and with a sort of nobility by reason of their greatness; and of many unformulated longings beyond the reach of words; but with never a single note of mere complaint. So it had seemed to Durrance that night as he had sat listening while Ethne's face was turned away. So it seemed to him now when he knew that her face was still to be turned away for all his days. He had drawn a thought from her playing which he was at some pains to keep definite in his mind. The true music cannot complain.
Therefore it was that as he rode the next morning into the Row his blue eyes looked out upon the world from his bronzed face with not a jot less of his usual friendliness. He waited at half-past nine by the clump of lilacs and laburnums at the end of the sand, but Harry Feversham did not join him that morning, nor indeed for the next three weeks. Ever since the two men had graduated from Oxford it had been their custom to meet at this spot and hour, when both chanced to be in town, and Durrance was puzzled. It seemed to him that he had lost his friend as well.
Meanwhile, however, the rumours of war grew to a certainty; and when at last Feversham kept the tryst, Durrance had news.
"I told you luck might look my way. Well, she has. I go out to Egypt on General Graham's staff. There's talk we may run down the Red Sea to Suakin afterward."
The exhilaration of his voice brought an unmistakable envy into Feversham's eyes. It seemed strange to Durrance, even at that moment of his good luck, that Harry Feversham should envy him—strange and rather pleasant. But he interpreted the envy in the light of his own ambitions.
"It is rough on you," he said sympathetically, "that your regiment has to stay behind."
Feversham rode by his friend's side in silence. Then, as they came to the chairs beneath the trees, he said:—
"That was expected. The day you dined with me I sent in my papers."
"That night?" said Durrance, turning in his saddle. "After we had gone?"
"Yes," said Feversham, accepting the correction. He wondered whether it had been intended. But Durrance rode silently forward. Again Harry Feversham was conscious of a reproach in his friend's silence, and again he was wrong. For Durrance suddenly spoke heartily, and with a laugh.
"I remember. You gave us your reasons that night. But for the life of me I can't help wishing that we had been going out together. When do you leave for Ireland?"
They turned their horses and rode westward again down the alley of trees. The morning was still fresh. The limes and chestnuts had lost nothing of their early green, and since the May was late that year, its blossoms still hung delicately white like snow upon the branches and shone red against the dark rhododendrons. The park shimmered in a haze of sunlight, and the distant roar of the streets was as the tumbling of river water.
"It is a long time since we bathed in Sandford Lasher," said Durrance.
"Or froze in the Easter vacations in the big snow-gully on Great End," returned Feversham. Both men had the feeling that on this morning a volume in their book of life was ended; and since the volume had been a pleasant one to read, and they did not know whether its successors would sustain its promise, they were looking backward through the leaves before they put it finally away.
"You must stay with us, Jack, when you come back," said Feversham.
Durrance had schooled himself not to wince, and he did not, even at that anticipatory "us." If his left hand tightened upon the thongs of his reins, the sign could not be detected by his friend.
"If I come back," said Durrance. "You know my creed. I could never pity a man who died on active service. I would very much like to come by that end myself."
It was a quite simple creed, consistent with the simplicity of the man who uttered it. It amounted to no more than this: that to die decently was worth a good many years of life. So that he uttered it without melancholy or any sign of foreboding. Even so, however, he had a fear that perhaps his friend might place another interpretation upon the words, and he looked quickly into his face. He only saw again, however, that puzzling look of envy in Feversham's eyes.
"You see there are worse things which can happen," he continued; "disablement, for instance. Clever men could make a shift, perhaps, to put up with it. But what in the world should I do if I had to sit in a chair all my days? It makes me shiver to think of it," and he shook his broad shoulders to unsaddle that fear. "Well, this is the last ride. Let us gallop," and he let out his horse.
Feversham followed his example, and side by side they went racing down the sand. At the bottom of the Row they stopped, shook hands, and with the curtest of nods parted. Feversham rode out of the park, Durrance turned back and walked his horse up toward the seats beneath the trees.
Even as a boy in his home at Southpool in Devonshire, upon a wooded creek of the Salcombe estuary, he had always been conscious of a certain restlessness, a desire to sail down that creek and out over the levels of the sea, a dream of queer outlandish countries and peoples beyond the dark familiar woods. And the restlessness had grown upon him, so that "Guessens," even when he had inherited it with its farms and lands, had remained always in his thoughts as a place to come home to rather than an estate to occupy a life. He purposely exaggerated that restlessness now, and purposely set against it words which Feversham had spoken and which he knew to be true. Ethne Eustace would hardly be happy outside her county of Donegal. Therefore, even had things fallen out differently, as he phrased it, there might have been a clash. Perhaps it was as well that Harry Feversham was to marry Ethne—and not another than Feversham.
Thus, at all events, he argued as he rode, until the riders vanished from before his eyes, and the ladies in their coloured frocks beneath the cool of the trees. The trees themselves dwindled to ragged mimosas, the brown sand at his feet spread out in a widening circumference and took the bright colour of honey; and upon the empty sand black stones began to heap themselves shapelessly like coal, and to flash in the sun like mirrors. He was deep in his anticipations of the Soudan, when he heard his name called out softly in a woman's voice, and, looking up, found himself close by the rails.
"How do you do, Mrs. Adair?" said he, and he stopped his horse. Mrs. Adair gave him her hand across the rails. She was Durrance's neighbour at Southpool, and by a year or two his elder—a tall woman, remarkable for the many shades of her thick brown hair and the peculiar pallor on her face. But at this moment the face had brightened, there was a hint of colour in the cheeks.
"I have news for you," said Durrance. "Two special items. One, Harry Feversham is to be married."
"To whom?" asked the lady, eagerly.
"You should know. It was in your house in Hill Street that Harry first met her; and I introduced him. He has been improving the acquaintance in Dublin."
But Mrs. Adair already understood; and it was plain that the news was welcome.
"Ethne Eustace!" she cried. "They will be married soon?"
"There is nothing to prevent it."
"I am glad," and the lady sighed as though with relief. "What is your second item?"
"As good as the first. I go out on General Graham's staff."
Mrs. Adair was silent. There came a look of anxiety into her eyes, and the colour died out of her face.
"You are very glad, I suppose," she said slowly.
Durrance's voice left her in no doubt.
"I should think I was. I go soon, too, and the sooner the better. I will come and dine some night, if I may, before I go."
"My husband will be pleased to see you," said Mrs. Adair, rather coldly. Durrance did not notice the coldness, however. He had his own reasons for making the most of the opportunity which had come his way; and he urged his enthusiasm, and laid it bare in words more for his own benefit than with any thought of Mrs. Adair. Indeed, he had always rather a vague impression of the lady. She was handsome in a queer, foreign way not so uncommon along the coasts of Devonshire and Cornwall, and she had good hair, and was always well dressed. Moreover, she was friendly. And at that point Durrance's knowledge of her came to an end. Perhaps her chief merit in his eyes was that she had made friends with Ethne Eustace. But he was to become better acquainted with Mrs. Adair. He rode away from the park with the old regret in his mind that the fortunes of himself and his friend were this morning finally severed. As a fact he had that morning set the strands of a new rope a-weaving which was to bring them together again in a strange and terrible relationship. Mrs. Adair followed him out of the park, and walked home very thoughtfully.
Durrance had just one week wherein to provide his equipment and arrange his estate in Devonshire. It passed in a continuous hurry of preparation, so that his newspaper lay each day unfolded in his rooms. The general was to travel overland to Brindisi; and so on an evening of wind and rain, toward the end of July, Durrance stepped from the Dover pier into the mail-boat for Calais. In spite of the rain and the gloomy night, a small crowd had gathered to give the general a send-off. As the ropes were cast off, a feeble cheer was raised; and before the cheer had ended, Durrance found himself beset by a strange illusion. He was leaning upon the bulwarks, idly wondering whether this was his last view of England, and with a wish that some one of his friends had come down to see him go, when it seemed to him suddenly that his wish was answered; for he caught a glimpse of a man standing beneath a gas-lamp, and that man was of the stature and wore the likeness of Harry Feversham. Durrance rubbed his eyes and looked again. But the wind made the tongue of light flicker uncertainly within the glass; the rain, too, blurred the quay. He could only be certain that a man was standing there, he could only vaguely distinguish beneath the lamp the whiteness of a face. It was an illusion, he said to himself. Harry Feversham was at that moment most likely listening to Ethne playing the violin under a clear sky in a high garden of Donegal. But even as he was turning from the bulwarks, there came a lull of the wind, the lights burned bright and steady on the pier, and the face leaped from the shadows distinct in feature and expression. Durrance leaned out over the side of the boat.
"Harry!" he shouted, at the top of a wondering voice.
But the figure beneath the lamp never stirred. The wind blew the lights again this way and that, the paddles churned the water, the mail-boat passed beyond the pier. It was an illusion, he repeated; it was a coincidence. It was the face of a stranger very like to Harry Feversham's. It could not be Feversham's, because the face which Durrance had seen so distinctly for a moment was a haggard, wistful face—a face stamped with an extraordinary misery; the face of a man cast out from among his fellows.
Durrance had been very busy all that week. He had clean forgotten the arrival of that telegram and the suspense which the long perusal of it had caused. Moreover, his newspaper had lain unfolded in his rooms. But his friend Harry Feversham had come to see him off.
THE BALL AT LENNON HOUSE
Yet Feversham had travelled to Dublin by the night mail after his ride with Durrance in the Row. He had crossed Lough Swilly on the following fore-noon by a little cargo steamer, which once a week steamed up the Lennon River as far as Ramelton. On the quay-side Ethne was waiting for him in her dog-cart; she gave him the hand and the smile of a comrade.
"You are surprised to see me," said she, noting the look upon his face.
"I always am," he replied. "For always you exceed my thoughts of you;" and the smile changed upon her face—it became something more than the smile of a comrade.
"I shall drive slowly," she said, as soon as his traps had been packed into the cart; "I brought no groom on purpose. There will be guests coming to-morrow. We have only to-day."
She drove along the wide causeway by the riverside, and turned up the steep, narrow street. Feversham sat silently by her side. It was his first visit to Ramelton, and he gazed about him, noting the dark thicket of tall trees which climbed on the far side of the river, the old grey bridge, the noise of the water above it as it sang over shallows, and the drowsy quiet of the town, with a great curiosity and almost a pride of ownership, since it was here that Ethne lived, and all these things were part and parcel of her life.
She was at that time a girl of twenty-one, tall, strong, and supple of limb, and with a squareness of shoulder proportionate to her height. She had none of that exaggerated slope which our grandmothers esteemed, yet she lacked no grace of womanhood on that account, and in her walk she was light-footed as a deer. Her hair was dark brown, and she wore it coiled upon the nape of her neck; a bright colour burned in her cheeks, and her eyes, of a very clear grey, met the eyes of those to whom she talked with a most engaging frankness. And in character she was the counterpart of her looks. She was honest; she had a certain simplicity, the straightforward simplicity of strength which comprises much gentleness and excludes violence. Of her courage there is a story still told in Ramelton, which Feversham could never remember without a thrill of wonder. She had stopped at a door on that steep hill leading down to the river, and the horse which she was driving took fright at the mere clatter of a pail and bolted. The reins were lying loose at the moment; they fell on the ground before Ethne could seize them. She was thus seated helpless in the dog-cart, and the horse was tearing down to where the road curves sharply over the bridge. The thing which she did, she did quite coolly. She climbed over the front of the dog-cart as it pitched and raced down the hill, and balancing herself along the shafts, reached the reins at the horse's neck, and brought the horse to a stop ten yards from the curve. But she had, too, the defects of her qualities, although Feversham was not yet aware of them.
Ethne during the first part of this drive was almost as silent as her companion; and when she spoke, it was with an absent air, as though she had something of more importance in her thoughts. It was not until she had left the town and was out upon the straight, undulating road to Letterkenny that she turned quickly to Feversham and uttered it.
"I saw this morning that your regiment was ordered from India to Egypt. You could have gone with it, had I not come in your way. There would have been chances of distinction. I have hindered you, and I am very sorry. Of course, you could not know that there was any possibility of your regiment going, but I can understand it is very hard for you to be left behind. I blame myself."
Feversham sat staring in front of him for a moment. Then he said, in a voice suddenly grown hoarse:—
"You need not."
"How can I help it? I blame myself the more," she continued, "because I do not see things quite like other women. For instance, supposing that you had gone to Egypt, and that the worst had happened, I should have felt very lonely, of course, all my days, but I should have known quite surely that when those days were over, you and I would see much of one another."
She spoke without any impressive lowering of the voice, but in the steady, level tone of one stating the simplest imaginable fact. Feversham caught his breath like a man in pain. But the girl's eyes were upon his face, and he sat still, staring in front of him without so much as a contraction of the forehead. But it seemed that he could not trust himself to answer. He kept his lips closed, and Ethne continued:—
"You see I can put up with the absence of the people I care about, a little better perhaps than most people. I do not feel that I have lost them at all," and she cast about for a while as if her thought was difficult to express. "You know how things happen," she resumed. "One goes along in a dull sort of way, and then suddenly a face springs out from the crowd of one's acquaintances, and you know it at once and certainly for the face of a friend, or rather you recognise it, though you have never seen it before. It is almost as though you had come upon some one long looked for and now gladly recovered. Well, such friends—they are few, no doubt, but after all only the few really count—such friends one does not lose, whether they are absent, or even—dead."
"Unless," said Feversham, slowly, "one has made a mistake. Suppose the face in the crowd is a mask, what then? One may make mistakes."
Ethne shook her head decidedly.
"Of that kind, no. One may seem to have made mistakes, and perhaps for a long while. But in the end one would be proved not to have made them."
And the girl's implicit faith took hold upon the man and tortured him, so that he could no longer keep silence.
"Ethne," he cried, "you don't know—" But at that moment Ethne reined in her horse, laughed, and pointed with her whip.
They had come to the top of a hill a couple of miles from Ramelton. The road ran between stone walls enclosing open fields upon the left, and a wood of oaks and beeches on the right. A scarlet letter-box was built into the left-hand wall, and at that Ethne's whip was pointed.
"I wanted to show you that," she interrupted. "It was there I used to post my letters to you during the anxious times." And so Feversham let slip his opportunity of speech.
"The house is behind the trees to the right," she continued.
"The letter-box is very convenient," said Feversham.
"Yes," said Ethne, and she drove on and stopped again where the park wall had crumbled.
"That's where I used to climb over to post the letters. There's a tree on the other side of the wall as convenient as the letter-box. I used to run down the half-mile of avenue at night."
"There might have been thieves," exclaimed Feversham.
"There were thorns," said Ethne, and turning through the gates she drove up to the porch of the long, irregular grey house. "Well, we have still a day before the dance."
"I suppose the whole country-side is coming," said Feversham.
"It daren't do anything else," said Ethne, with a laugh. "My father would send the police to fetch them if they stayed away, just as he fetched your friend Mr. Durrance here. By the way, Mr. Durrance has sent me a present—a Guarnerius violin."
The door opened, and a thin, lank old man, with a fierce peaked face like a bird of prey, came out upon the steps. His face softened, however, into friendliness when he saw Feversham, and a smile played upon his lips. A stranger might have thought that he winked. But his left eyelid continually drooped over the eye.
"How do you do?" he said. "Glad to see you. Must make yourself at home. If you want any whiskey, stamp twice on the floor with your foot. The servants understand," and with that he went straightway back into the house.
* * * * *
The biographer of Dermod Eustace would need to bring a wary mind to his work. For though the old master of Lennon House has not lain twenty years in his grave, he is already swollen into a legendary character. Anecdotes have grown upon his memory like barnacles, and any man in those parts with a knack of invention has only to foist his stories upon Dermod to ensure a ready credence. There are, however, definite facts. He practised an ancient and tyrannous hospitality, keeping open house upon the road to Letterkenny, and forcing bed and board even upon strangers, as Durrance had once discovered. He was a man of another century, who looked out with a glowering, angry eye upon a topsy-turvy world, and would not be reconciled to it except after much alcohol. He was a sort of intoxicated Coriolanus, believing that the people should be shepherded with a stick, yet always mindful of his manners, even to the lowliest of women. It was said of him with pride by the townsfolk of Ramelton, that even at his worst, when he came galloping down the steep cobbled streets, mounted on a big white mare of seventeen hands, with his inseparable collie dog for his companion,—a gaunt, grey-faced, grey-haired man, with a drooping eye, swaying with drink, yet by a miracle keeping his saddle,—he had never ridden down any one except a man. There are two points to be added. He was rather afraid of his daughter, who wisely kept him doubtful whether she was displeased with him or not, and he had conceived a great liking for Harry Feversham.
Harry saw little of him that day, however. Dermod retired into the room which he was pleased to call his office, while Feversham and Ethne spent the afternoon fishing for salmon in the Lennon River. It was an afternoon restful as a Sabbath, and the very birds were still. From the house the lawns fell steeply, shaded by trees and dappled by the sunlight, to a valley, at the bottom of which flowed the river swift and black under overarching boughs. There was a fall, where the water slid over rocks with a smoothness so unbroken that it looked solid except just at one point. There a spur stood sharply up, and the river broke back upon itself in an amber wave through which the sun shone. Opposite this spur they sat for a long while, talking at times, but for the most part listening to the roar of the water and watching its perpetual flow. And at last the sunset came, and the long shadows. They stood up, looked at each other with a smile, and so walked slowly back to the house. It was an afternoon which Feversham was long to remember; for the next night was the night of the dance, and as the band struck up the opening bars of the fourth waltz, Ethne left her position at the drawing-room door, and taking Feversham's arm passed out into the hall.
The hall was empty, and the front door stood open to the cool of the summer night. From the ballroom came the swaying lilt of the music and the beat of the dancers' feet. Ethne drew a breath of relief at her reprieve from her duties, and then dropping her partner's arm, crossed to a side table.
"The post is in," she said. "There are letters, one, two, three, for you, and a little box."
She held the box out to him as she spoke,—a little white jeweller's cardboard box,—and was at once struck by its absence of weight.
"It must be empty," she said.
Yet it was most carefully sealed and tied. Feversham broke the seals and unfastened the string. He looked at the address. The box had been forwarded from his lodgings, and he was not familiar with the handwriting.
"There is some mistake," he said as he shook the lid open, and then he stopped abruptly. Three white feathers fluttered out of the box, swayed and rocked for a moment in the air, and then, one after another, settled gently down upon the floor. They lay like flakes of snow upon the dark polished boards. But they were not whiter than Harry Feversham's cheeks. He stood and stared at the feathers until he felt a light touch upon his arm. He looked and saw Ethne's gloved hand upon his sleeve.
"What does it mean?" she asked. There was some perplexity in her voice, but nothing more than perplexity. The smile upon her face and the loyal confidence in her eyes showed she had never a doubt that his first word would lift it from her. "What does it mean?"
"That there are things which cannot be hid, I suppose," said Feversham.
For a little while Ethne did not speak. The languorous music floated into the hall, and the trees whispered from the garden through the open door. Then she shook his arm gently, uttered a breathless little laugh, and spoke as though she were pleading with a child.
"I don't think you understand, Harry. Here are three white feathers. They were sent to you in jest? Oh, of course in jest. But it is a cruel kind of jest—"
"They were sent in deadly earnest."
He spoke now, looking her straight in the eyes. Ethne dropped her hand from his sleeve.
"Who sent them?" she asked.
Feversham had not given a thought to that matter. The message was all in all, the men who had sent it so unimportant. But Ethne reached out her hand and took the box from him. There were three visiting cards lying at the bottom, and she took them out and read them aloud.
"Captain Trench, Mr. Castleton, Mr. Willoughby. Do you know these men?"
"All three are officers of my old regiment."
The girl was dazed. She knelt down upon the floor and gathered the feathers into her hand with a vague thought that merely to touch them would help her to comprehension. They lay upon the palm of her white glove, and she blew gently upon them, and they swam up into the air and hung fluttering and rocking. As they floated downward she caught them again, and so she slowly felt her way to another question.
"Were they justly sent?" she asked.
"Yes," said Harry Feversham.
He had no thought of denial or evasion. He was only aware that the dreadful thing for so many years dreadfully anticipated had at last befallen him. He was known for a coward. The word which had long blazed upon the wall of his thoughts in letters of fire was now written large in the public places. He stood as he had once stood before the portraits of his fathers, mutely accepting condemnation. It was the girl who denied, as she still kneeled upon the floor.
"I do not believe that is true," she said. "You could not look me in the face so steadily were it true. Your eyes would seek the floor, not mine."
"Yet it is true."
"Three little white feathers," she said slowly; and then, with a sob in her throat, "This afternoon we were under the elms down by the Lennon River—do you remember, Harry?—just you and I. And then come three little white feathers, and the world's at an end."
"Oh, don't!" cried Harry, and his voice broke upon the word. Up till now he had spoken with a steadiness matching the steadiness of his eyes. But these last words of hers, the picture which they evoked in his memories, the pathetic simplicity of her utterance, caught him by the heart. But Ethne seemed not to hear the appeal. She was listening with her face turned toward the ballroom. The chatter and laughter of the voices there grew louder and nearer. She understood that the music had ceased. She rose quickly to her feet, clenching the feathers in her hand, and opened a door. It was the door of her sitting room.
"Come," she said.
Harry followed her into the room, and she closed the door, shutting out the noise.
"Now," she said, "will you tell me, if you please, why the feathers have been sent?"
She stood quietly before him; her face was pale, but Feversham could not gather from her expression any feeling which she might have beyond a desire and a determination to get at the truth. She spoke, too, with the same quietude. He answered, as he had answered before, directly and to the point, without any attempt at mitigation.
"A telegram came. It was sent by Castleton. It reached me when Captain Trench and Mr. Willoughby were dining with me. It told me that my regiment would be ordered on active service in Egypt. Castleton was dining with a man likely to know, and I did not question the accuracy of his message. He told me to tell Trench. I did not. I thought the matter over with the telegram in front of me. Castleton was leaving that night for Scotland, and he would go straight from Scotland to rejoin the regiment. He would not, therefore, see Trench for some weeks at the earliest, and by that time the telegram would very likely be forgotten or its date confused. I did not tell Trench. I threw the telegram into the fire, and that night sent in my papers. But Trench found out somehow. Durrance was at dinner, too,—good God, Durrance!" he suddenly broke out. "Most likely he knows like the rest."
It came upon him as something shocking and strangely new that his friend Durrance, who, as he knew very well, had been wont rather to look up to him, in all likelihood counted him a thing of scorn. But he heard Ethne speaking. After all, what did it matter whether Durrance knew, whether every man knew, from the South Pole to the North, since she, Ethne, knew?
"And is this all?" she asked.
"Surely it is enough," said he.
"I think not," she answered, and she lowered her voice a little as she went on. "We agreed, didn't we, that no foolish misunderstandings should ever come between us? We were to be frank, and to take frankness each from the other without offence. So be frank with me! Please!" and she pleaded. "I could, I think, claim it as a right. At all events I ask for it as I shall never ask for anything else in all my life."
There was a sort of explanation of his act, Harry Feversham remembered; but it was so futile when compared with the overwhelming consequence. Ethne had unclenched her hands; the three feathers lay before his eyes upon the table. They could not be explained away; he wore "coward" like a blind man's label; besides, he could never make her understand. However, she wished for the explanation and had a right to it; she had been generous in asking for it, with a generosity not very common amongst women. So Feversham gathered his wits and explained:—
"All my life I have been afraid that some day I should play the coward, and from the very first I knew that I was destined for the army. I kept my fear to myself. There was no one to whom I could tell it. My mother was dead, and my father—" he stopped for a moment, with a deep intake of the breath. He could see his father, that lonely iron man, sitting at this very moment in his mother's favourite seat upon the terrace, and looking over the moonlit fields toward the Sussex Downs; he could imagine him dreaming of honours and distinctions worthy of the Fevershams to be gained immediately by his son in the Egyptian campaign. Surely that old man's stern heart would break beneath this blow. The magnitude of the bad thing which he had done, the misery which it would spread, were becoming very clear to Harry Feversham. He dropped his head between his hands and groaned aloud.
"My father," he resumed, "would, nay, could, never have understood. I know him. When danger came his way, it found him ready, but he did not foresee. That was my trouble always,—I foresaw. Any peril to be encountered, any risk to be run,—I foresaw them. I foresaw something else besides. My father would talk in his matter-of-fact way of the hours of waiting before the actual commencement of a battle, after the troops had been paraded. The mere anticipation of the suspense and the strain of those hours was a torture to me. I foresaw the possibility of cowardice. Then one evening, when my father had his old friends about him on one of his Crimean nights, two dreadful stories were told—one of an officer, the other of a surgeon, who had both shirked. I was now confronted with the fact of cowardice. I took those stories up to bed with me. They never left my memory; they became a part of me. I saw myself behaving now as one, now as the other, of those two men had behaved, perhaps in the crisis of a battle bringing ruin upon my country, certainly dishonouring my father and all the dead men whose portraits hung ranged in the hall. I tried to get the best of my fears. I hunted, but with a map of the country-side in my mind. I foresaw every hedge, every pit, every treacherous bank."
"Yet you rode straight," interrupted Ethne. "Mr. Durrance told me so."
"Did I?" said Feversham, vaguely. "Well, perhaps I did, once the hounds were off. Durrance never knew what the moments of waiting before the coverts were drawn meant to me! So when this telegram came, I took the chance it seemed to offer and resigned."
He ended his explanation. He had spoken warily, having something to conceal. However earnestly she might ask for frankness, he must at all costs, for her sake, hide something from her. But at once she suspected it.
"Were you afraid, too, of disgracing me? Was I in any way the cause that you resigned?"
Feversham looked her in the eyes and lied:—
"If you had not been engaged to me, you would still have sent in your papers?"
Ethne slowly stripped a glove off her hand. Feversham turned away.
"I think that I am rather like your father," she said. "I don't understand;" and in the silence which followed upon her words Feversham heard something whirr and rattle upon the table. He looked and saw that she had slipped her engagement ring off her finger. It lay upon the table, the stones winking at him.
"And all this—all that you have told to me," she exclaimed suddenly, with her face very stern, "you would have hidden from me? You would have married me and hidden it, had not these three feathers come?"
The words had been on her lips from the beginning, but she had not uttered them lest by a miracle he should after all have some unimagined explanation which would reestablish him in her thoughts. She had given him every chance. Now, however, she struck and laid bare the worst of his disloyalty. Feversham flinched, and he did not answer but allowed his silence to consent. Ethne, however, was just; she was in a way curious too: she wished to know the very bottom of the matter before she thrust it into the back of her mind.
"But yesterday," she said, "you were going to tell me something. I stopped you to point out the letter-box," and she laughed in a queer empty way. "Was it about the feathers?"
"Yes," answered Feversham, wearily. What did these persistent questions matter, since the feathers had come, since her ring lay flickering and winking on the table? "Yes, I think what you were saying rather compelled me."
"I remember," said Ethne, interrupting him rather hastily, "about seeing much of one another—afterwards. We will not speak of such things again," and Feversham swayed upon his feet as though he would fall. "I remember, too, you said one could make mistakes. You were right; I was wrong. One can do more than seem to make them. Will you, if you please, take back your ring?"
Feversham picked up the ring and held it in the palm of his hand, standing very still. He had never cared for her so much, he had never recognised her value so thoroughly, as at this moment when he lost her. She gleamed in the quiet room, wonderful, most wonderful, from the bright flowers in her hair to the white slipper on her foot. It was incredible to him that he should ever have won her. Yet he had, and disloyally had lost her. Then her voice broke in again upon his reflections.
"These, too, are yours. Will you take them, please?"
She was pointing with her fan to the feathers upon the table. Feversham obediently reached out his hand, and then drew it back in surprise.
"There are four," he said.
Ethne did not reply, and looking at her fan Feversham understood. It was a fan of ivory and white feathers. She had broken off one of those feathers and added it on her own account to the three.
The thing which she had done was cruel, no doubt. But she wished to make an end—a complete, irrevocable end; though her voice was steady and her face, despite its pallor, calm, she was really tortured with humiliation and pain. All the details of Harry Feversham's courtship, the interchange of looks, the letters she had written and received, the words which had been spoken, tingled and smarted unbearably in her recollections. Their lips had touched—she recalled it with horror. She desired never to see Harry Feversham after this night. Therefore she added her fourth feather to the three.
Harry Feversham took the feathers as she bade him, without a word of remonstrance, and indeed with a sort of dignity which even at that moment surprised her. All the time, too, he had kept his eyes steadily upon hers, he had answered her questions simply, there had been nothing abject in his manner; so that Ethne already began to regret this last thing which she had done. However, it was done. Feversham had taken the four feathers.
He held them in his fingers as though he was about to tear them across. But he checked the action. He looked suddenly towards her, and kept his eyes upon her face for some little while. Then very carefully he put the feathers into his breast pocket. Ethne at this time did not consider why. She only thought that here was the irrevocable end.
"We should be going back, I think," she said. "We have been some time away. Will you give me your arm?" In the hall she looked at the clock. "Only eleven o'clock," she said wearily. "When we dance here, we dance till daylight. We must show brave faces until daylight."
And with her hand resting upon his arm, they passed into the ballroom.
Habit assisted them; the irresponsible chatter of the ballroom sprang automatically to their lips; the appearance of enjoyment never failed from off their faces; so that no one at Lennon House that night suspected that any swift cause of severance had come between them. Harry Feversham watched Ethne laugh and talk as though she had never a care, and was perpetually surprised, taking no thought that he wore the like mask of gaiety himself. When she swung past him the light rhythm of her feet almost persuaded him that her heart was in the dance. It seemed that she could even command the colour upon her cheeks. Thus they both wore brave faces as she had bidden. They even danced together. But all the while Ethne was conscious that she was holding up a great load of pain and humiliation which would presently crush her, and Feversham felt those four feathers burning at his breast. It was wonderful to him that the whole company did not know of them. He never approached a partner without the notion that she would turn upon him with the contemptuous name which was his upon her tongue. Yet he felt no fear on that account. He would not indeed have cared had it happened, had the word been spoken. He had lost Ethne. He watched her and looked in vain amongst her guests, as indeed he surely knew he would, for a fit comparison. There were women, pretty, graceful, even beautiful, but Ethne stood apart by the particular character of her beauty. The broad forehead, the perfect curve of the eyebrows, the great steady, clear, grey eyes, the full red lips which could dimple into tenderness and shut level with resolution, and the royal grace of her carriage, marked her out to Feversham's thinking, and would do so in any company. He watched her in a despairing amazement that he had ever had a chance of owning her.
Only once did her endurance fail, and then only for a second. She was dancing with Feversham, and as she looked toward the windows she saw that the daylight was beginning to show very pale and cold upon the other side of the blinds.
"Look!" she said, and Feversham suddenly felt all her weight upon his arms. Her face lost its colour and grew tired and very grey. Her eyes shut tightly and then opened again. He thought that she would faint. "The morning at last!" she exclaimed, and then in a voice as weary as her face, "I wonder whether it is right that one should suffer so much pain."
"Hush!" whispered Feversham. "Courage! A few minutes more—only a very few!" He stopped and stood in front of her until her strength returned.
"Thank you!" she said gratefully, and the bright wheel of the dance caught them in its spokes again.
It was strange that he should be exhorting her to courage, she thanking him for help; but the irony of this queer momentary reversal of their position occurred to neither of them. Ethne was too tried by the strain of those last hours, and Feversham had learned from that one failure of her endurance, from the drawn aspect of her face and the depths of pain in her eyes, how deeply he had wounded her. He no longer said, "I have lost her," he no longer thought of his loss at all. He heard her words, "I wonder whether it is right that one should suffer so much pain." He felt that they would go ringing down the world with him, persistent in his ears, spoken upon the very accent of her voice. He was sure that he would hear them at the end above the voices of any who should stand about him when he died, and hear in them his condemnation. For it was not right.
The ball finished shortly afterwards. The last carriage drove away, and those who were staying in the house sought the smoking-room or went upstairs to bed according to their sex. Feversham, however, lingered in the hall with Ethne. She understood why.
"There is no need," she said, standing with her back to him as she lighted a candle, "I have told my father. I told him everything."
Feversham bowed his head in acquiescence.
"Still, I must wait and see him," he said.
Ethne did not object, but she turned and looked at him quickly with her brows drawn in a frown of perplexity. To wait for her father under such circumstances seemed to argue a certain courage. Indeed, she herself felt some apprehension as she heard the door of the study open and Dermod's footsteps on the floor. Dermod walked straight up to Harry Feversham, looking for once in a way what he was, a very old man, and stood there staring into Feversham's face with a muddled and bewildered expression. Twice he opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. In the end he turned to the table and lit his candle and Harry Feversham's. Then he turned back toward Feversham, and rather quickly, so that Ethne took a step forward as if to get between them; but he did nothing more than stare at Feversham again and for a long time. Finally, he took up his candle.
"Well—" he said, and stopped. He snuffed the wick with the scissors and began again. "Well—" he said, and stopped again. Apparently his candle had not helped him to any suitable expressions. He stared into the flame now instead of into Feversham's face, and for an equal length of time. He could think of nothing whatever to say, and yet he was conscious that something must be said. In the end he said lamely:—
"If you want any whiskey, stamp twice on the floor with your foot. The servants understand."
Thereupon he walked heavily up the stairs. The old man's forbearance was perhaps not the least part of Harry Feversham's punishment.
* * * * *
It was broad daylight when Ethne was at last alone within her room. She drew up the blinds and opened the windows wide. The cool fresh air of the morning was as a draught of spring-water to her. She looked out upon a world as yet unillumined by colours and found therein an image of her days to come. The dark, tall trees looked black; the winding paths, a singular dead white; the very lawns were dull and grey, though the dew lay upon them like a network of frost. It was a noisy world, however, for all its aspect of quiet. For the blackbirds were calling from the branches and the grass, and down beneath the overhanging trees the Lennon flowed in music between its banks. Ethne drew back from the window. She had much to do that morning before she slept. For she designed with her natural thoroughness to make an end at once of all her associations with Harry Feversham. She wished that from the moment when next she waked she might never come across a single thing which could recall him to her memory. And with a sort of stubborn persistence she went about the work.
But she changed her mind. In the very process of collecting together the gifts which he had made to her she changed her mind. For each gift that she looked upon had its history, and the days before this miserable night had darkened on her happiness came one by one slowly back to her as she looked. She determined to keep one thing which had belonged to Harry Feversham,—a small thing, a thing of no value. At first she chose a penknife, which he had once lent to her and she had forgotten to return. But the next instant she dropped it and rather hurriedly. For she was after all an Irish girl, and though she did not believe in superstitions, where superstitions were concerned she preferred to be on the safe side. She selected his photograph in the end and locked it away in a drawer.
She gathered the rest of his presents together, packed them carefully in a box, fastened the box, addressed it and carried it down to the hall, that the servants might despatch it in the morning. Then coming back to her room she took his letters, made a little pile of them on the hearth and set them alight. They took some while to consume, but she waited, sitting upright in her arm-chair while the flame crept from sheet to sheet, discolouring the paper, blackening the writing like a stream of ink, and leaving in the end only flakes of ashes like feathers, and white flakes like white feathers. The last sparks were barely extinguished when she heard a cautious step on the gravel beneath her window.
It was broad daylight, but her candle was still burning on the table at her side, and with a quick instinctive movement she reached out her arm and put the light out. Then she sat very still and rigid, listening. For a while she heard only the blackbirds calling from the trees in the garden and the throbbing music of the river. Afterward she heard the footsteps again, cautiously retreating; and in spite of her will, in spite of her formal disposal of the letters and the presents, she was mastered all at once, not by pain or humiliation, but by an overpowering sense of loneliness. She seemed to be seated high on an empty world of ruins. She rose quickly from her chair, and her eyes fell upon a violin case. With a sigh of relief she opened it, and a little while after one or two of the guests who were sleeping in the house chanced to wake up and heard floating down the corridors the music of a violin played very lovingly and low. Ethne was not aware that the violin which she held was the Guarnerius violin which Durrance had sent to her. She only understood that she had a companion to share her loneliness.
HARRY FEVERSHAM'S PLAN
It was the night of August 30. A month had passed since the ball at Lennon House, but the uneventful country-side of Donegal was still busy with the stimulating topic of Harry Feversham's disappearance. The townsmen in the climbing street and the gentry at their dinner-tables gossiped to their hearts' contentment. It was asserted that Harry Feversham had been seen on the very morning after the dance, and at five minutes to six—though according to Mrs. Brien O'Brien it was ten minutes past the hour—still in his dress clothes and with a white suicide's face, hurrying along the causeway by the Lennon Bridge. It was suggested that a drag-net would be the only way to solve the mystery. Mr. Dennis Rafferty, who lived on the road to Rathmullen, indeed, went so far as to refuse salmon on the plea that he was not a cannibal, and the saying had a general vogue. Their conjectures as to the cause of the disappearance were no nearer to the truth. For there were only two who knew, and those two went steadily about the business of living as though no catastrophe had befallen them. They held their heads a trifle more proudly perhaps. Ethne might have become a little more gentle, Dermod a little more irascible, but these were the only changes. So gossip had the field to itself.
But Harry Feversham was in London, as Lieutenant Sutch discovered on the night of the 30th. All that day the town had been perturbed by rumours of a great battle fought at Kassassin in the desert east of Ismailia. Messengers had raced ceaselessly through the streets, shouting tidings of victory and tidings of disaster. There had been a charge by moonlight of General Drury-Lowe's Cavalry Brigade, which had rolled up Arabi's left flank and captured his guns. It was rumoured that an English general had been killed, that the York and Lancaster Regiment had been cut up. London was uneasy, and at eleven o'clock at night a great crowd of people had gathered beneath the gas-lamps in Pall Mall, watching with pale upturned faces the lighted blinds of the War Office. The crowd was silent and impressively still. Only if a figure moved for an instant across the blinds, a thrill of expectation passed from man to man, and the crowd swayed in a continuous movement from edge to edge. Lieutenant Sutch, careful of his wounded leg, was standing on the outskirts, with his back to the parapet of the Junior Carlton Club, when he felt himself touched upon the arm. He saw Harry Feversham at his side. Feversham's face was working and extraordinarily white, his eyes were bright like the eyes of a man in a fever; and Sutch at the first was not sure that he knew or cared who it was to whom he talked.