THE FOUR FEATHERS
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.