THE FOUR FEATHERS
THE STORY OF THE FIRST FEATHER
"I will not interrupt you," said Ethne, as Willoughby took his seat beside her, and he had barely spoken a score of words before she broke that promise.
"I am Deputy-Governor of Suakin," he began. "My chief was on leave in May. You are fortunate enough not to know Suakin, Miss Eustace, particularly in May. No white woman can live in that town. It has a sodden intolerable heat peculiar to itself. The air is heavy with brine; you can't sleep at night for its oppression. Well, I was sitting in the verandah on the first floor of the palace about ten o'clock at night, looking out over the harbour and the distillation works, and wondering whether it was worth while to go to bed at all, when a servant told me that a man, who refused to give his name, wished particularly to see me. The man was Feversham. There was only a lamp burning in the verandah, and the night was dark, so that I did not recognise him until he was close to me."
And at once Ethne interrupted.
"How did he look?"
Willoughby wrinkled his forehead and opened his eyes wide.
"Really, I do not know," he said doubtfully. "Much like other men, I suppose, who have been a year or two in the Soudan, a trifle overtrained and that sort of thing."
"Never mind," said Ethne, with a sigh of disappointment. For five years she had heard no word of Harry Feversham. She fairly hungered for news of him, for the sound of his habitual phrases, for the description of his familiar gestures. She had the woman's anxiety for his bodily health, she wished to know whether he had changed in face or figure, and, if so, how and in what measure. But she glanced at the obtuse, unobservant countenance of Captain Willoughby, and she understood that however much she craved for these particulars, she must go without.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "Will you go on?"
"I asked him what he wanted," Willoughby resumed, "and why he had not sent in his name. 'You would not have seen me if I had,' he replied, and he drew a packet of letters out of his pocket. Now, those letters, Miss Eustace, had been written a long while ago by General Gordon in Khartum. They had been carried down the Nile as far as Berber. But the day after they reached Berber, that town surrendered to the Mahdists. Abou Fatma, the messenger who carried them, hid them in the wall of the house of an Arab called Yusef, who sold rock-salt in the market-place. Abou was then thrown into prison on suspicion, and escaped to Suakin. The letters remained hidden in that wall until Feversham recovered them. I looked over them and saw that they were of no value, and I asked Feversham bluntly why he, who had not dared to accompany his regiment on active service, had risked death and torture to get them back."
Standing upon that verandah, with the quiet pool of water in front of him, Feversham had told his story quietly and without exaggeration. He had related how he had fallen in with Abou Fatma at Suakin, how he had planned the recovery of the letters, how the two men had travelled together as far as Obak, and since Abou Fatma dared not go farther, how he himself, driving his grey donkey, had gone on alone to Berber. He had not even concealed that access of panic which had loosened his joints when first he saw the low brown walls of the town and the towering date palms behind on the bank of the Nile; which had set him running and leaping across the empty desert in the sunlight, a marrowless thing of fear. He made, however, one omission. He said nothing of the hours which he had spent crouching upon the hot sand, with his coat drawn over his head, while he drew a woman's face toward him across the continents and seas and nerved himself to endure by the look of sorrow which it wore.
"He went down into Berber at the setting of the sun," said Captain Willoughby, and it was all that he had to say. It was enough, however, for Ethne Eustace. She drew a deep breath of relief, her face softened, there came a light into her grey eyes, and a smile upon her lips.
"He went down into Berber," she repeated softly.
"And found that the old town had been destroyed by the orders of the Emir, and that a new one was building upon its southern confines," continued Willoughby. "All the landmarks by which Feversham was to know the house in which the letters were hidden had gone. The roofs had been torn off, the houses dismantled, the front walls carried away. Narrow alleys of crumbling fives-courts—that was how Feversham described the place—crossing this way and that and gaping to the stars. Here and there perhaps a broken tower rose up, the remnant of a rich man's house. But of any sign which could tell a man where the hut of Yusef, who had once sold rock-salt in the market-place, had stood, there was no hope in those acres of crumbling mud. The foxes had already made their burrows there."
The smile faded from Ethne's face, but she looked again at the white feather lying in her palm, and she laughed with a great contentment. It was yellow with the desert dust. It was a proof that in this story there was to be no word of failure.
"Go on," she said.
Willoughby related the despatch of the negro with the donkey to Abou Fatma at the Wells of Obak.
"Feversham stayed for a fortnight in Berber," Willoughby continued. "A week during which he came every morning to the well and waited for the return of his negro from Obak, and a week during which that negro searched for Yusef, who had once sold rock-salt in the market-place. I doubt, Miss Eustace, if you can realise, however hard you try, what that fortnight must have meant to Feversham—the anxiety, the danger, the continued expectation that a voice would bid him halt and a hand fall upon his shoulder, the urgent knowledge that if the hand fell, death would be the least part of his penalty. I imagine the town—a town of low houses and broad streets of sand, dug here and there into pits for mud wherewith to build the houses, and overhead the blistering sun and a hot shadowless sky. In no corner was there any darkness or concealment. And all day a crowd jostled and shouted up and down these streets—for that is the Mahdist policy to crowd the towns so that all may be watched and every other man may be his neighbour's spy. Feversham dared not seek the shelter of a roof at night, for he dared not trust his tongue. He could buy his food each day at the booths, but he was afraid of any conversation. He slept at night in some corner of the old deserted town, in the acres of the ruined fives-courts. For the same reason he must not slink in the by-ways by day lest any should question him about his business; nor listen on the chance of hearing Yusef's name in the public places lest other loiterers should joke with him and draw him into their talk. Nor dare he in the daylight prowl about those crumbled ruins. From sunrise to sunset he must go quickly up and down the streets of the town like a man bent upon urgent business which permits of no delay. And that continued for a fortnight, Miss Eustace! A weary, trying life, don't you think? I wish I could tell you of it as vividly as he told me that night upon the balcony of the palace at Suakin."
Ethne wished it too with all her heart. Harry Feversham had made his story very real that night to Captain Willoughby; so that even after the lapse of fifteen months this unimaginative creature was sensible of a contrast and a deficiency in his manner of narration.
"In front of us was the quiet harbour and the Red Sea, above us the African stars. Feversham spoke in the quietest manner possible, but with a peculiar deliberation and with his eyes fixed upon my face, as though he was forcing me to feel with him and to understand. Even when he lighted his cigar he did not avert his eyes. For by this time I had given him a cigar and offered him a chair. I had really, I assure you, Miss Eustace. It was the first time in four years that he had sat with one of his equals, or indeed with any of his countrymen on a footing of equality. He told me so. I wish I could remember all that he told me." Willoughby stopped and cudgelled his brains helplessly. He gave up the effort in the end.
"Well," he resumed, "after Feversham had skulked for a fortnight in Berber, the negro discovered Yusef, no longer selling salt, but tending a small plantation of dhurra on the river's edge. From Yusef, Feversham obtained particulars enough to guide him to the house where the letters were concealed in the inner wall. But Yusef was no longer to be trusted. Possibly Feversham's accent betrayed him. The more likely conjecture is that Yusef took Feversham for a spy, and thought it wise to be beforehand and to confess to Mohammed-el-Kheir, the Emir, his own share in the concealment of the letters. That, however, is a mere conjecture. The important fact is this. On the same night Feversham went alone to old Berber."
"Alone!" said Ethne. "Yes?"
"He found the house fronting a narrow alley, and the sixth of the row. The front wall was destroyed, but the two side walls and the back wall still stood. Three feet from the floor and two feet from the right-hand corner the letters were hidden in that inner wall. Feversham dug into the mud bricks with his knife; he made a hole wherein he could slip his hand. The wall was thick; he dug deep, stopping now and again to feel for the packet. At last his fingers clasped and drew it out; as he hid it in a fold of his jibbeh, the light of a lantern shone upon him from behind."
Ethne started as though she had been trapped herself. Those acres of roofless fives-courts, with here and there a tower showing up against the sky, the lonely alleys, the dead silence here beneath the stars, the cries and the beating of drums and the glare of lights from the new town, Harry Feversham alone with the letters, with, in a word, some portion of his honour redeemed, and finally, the lantern flashing upon him in that solitary place,—the scene itself and the progress of the incidents were so visible to Ethne at that moment that even with the feather in her open palm she could hardly bring herself to believe that Harry Feversham had escaped.
"Well, well?" she asked.
"He was standing with his face to the wall, the light came from the alley behind him. He did not turn, but out of the corner of his eye he could see a fold of a white robe hanging motionless. He carefully secured the package, with a care indeed and a composure which astonished him even at that moment. The shock had strung him to a concentration and lucidity of thought unknown to him till then. His fingers were trembling, he remarked, as he tied the knots, but it was with excitement, and an excitement which did not flurry. His mind worked rapidly, but quite coolly, quite deliberately. He came to a perfectly definite conclusion as to what he must do. Every faculty which he possessed was extraordinarily clear, and at the same time extraordinarily still. He had his knife in his hand, he faced about suddenly and ran. There were two men waiting. Feversham ran at the man who held the lantern. He was aware of the point of a spear, he ducked and beat it aside with his left arm, he leaped forward and struck with his right. The Arab fell at his feet; the lantern was extinguished. Feversham sprang across the white-robed body and ran eastward, toward the open desert. But in no panic; he had never been so collected. He was followed by the second soldier. He had foreseen that he would be followed. If he was to escape, it was indeed necessary that he should be. He turned a corner, crouched behind a wall, and as the Arab came running by he leaped out upon his shoulders. And again as he leaped he struck."
Captain Willoughby stopped at this point of his story and turned towards Ethne. He had something to say which perplexed and at the same time impressed him, and he spoke with a desire for an explanation.
"The strangest feature of those few fierce, short minutes," he said, "was that Feversham felt no fear. I don't understand that, do you? From the first moment when the lantern shone upon him from behind, to the last when he turned his feet eastward, and ran through the ruined alleys and broken walls toward the desert and the Wells of Obak, he felt no fear."
This was the most mysterious part of Harry Feversham's story to Captain Willoughby. Here was a man who so shrank from the possibilities of battle, that he must actually send in his papers rather than confront them; yet when he stood in dire and immediate peril he felt no fear. Captain Willoughby might well turn to Ethne for an explanation.
There had been no mystery in it to Harry Feversham, but a great bitterness of spirit. He had sat on the verandah at Suakin, whittling away at the edge of Captain Willoughby's table with the very knife which he had used in Berber to dig out the letters, and which had proved so handy a weapon when the lantern shone out behind him—the one glimmering point of light in that vast acreage of ruin. Harry Feversham had kept it carefully uncleansed of blood; he had treasured it all through his flight across the two hundred and forty odd miles of desert into Suakin; it was, next to the white feathers, the thing which he held most precious of his possessions, and not merely because it would serve as a corroboration of his story to Captain Willoughby, but because the weapon enabled him to believe and realise it himself. A brown clotted rust dulled the whole length of the blade, and often during the first two days and nights of his flight, when he travelled alone, hiding and running and hiding again, with the dread of pursuit always at his heels, he had taken the knife from his breast, and stared at it with incredulous eyes, and clutched it close to him like a thing of comfort. He had lost his way amongst the sandhills of Obak on the evening of the second day, and had wandered vainly, with his small store of dates and water exhausted, until he had stumbled and lay prone, parched and famished and enfeebled, with the bitter knowledge that Abou Fatma and the Wells were somewhere within a mile of the spot on which he lay. But even at that moment of exhaustion the knife had been a talisman and a help. He grasped the rough wooden handle, all too small for a Western hand, and he ran his fingers over the rough rust upon the blade, and the weapon spoke to him and bade him take heart, since once he had been put to the test and had not failed. But long before he saw the white houses of Suakin that feeling of elation vanished, and the knife became an emblem of the vain tortures of his boyhood and the miserable folly which culminated in his resignation of his commission. He understood now the words which Lieutenant Sutch had spoken in the grill-room of the Criterion Restaurant, when citing Hamlet as his example, "The thing which he saw, which he thought over, which he imagined in the act and in the consequence—that he shrank from. Yet when the moment of action comes sharp and immediate, does he fail?" And remembering the words, Harry Feversham sat one May night, four years afterwards, in Captain Willoughby's verandah, whittling away at the table with his knife, and saying over and over again in a bitter savage voice: "It was an illusion, but an illusion which has caused a great deal of suffering to a woman I would have shielded from suffering. But I am well paid for it, for it has wrecked my life besides."
Captain Willoughby could not understand, any more than General Feversham could have understood, or than Ethne had. But Willoughby could at all events remember and repeat, and Ethne had grown by five years of unhappiness since the night when Harry Feversham, in the little room off the hall at Lennon House, had told her of his upbringing, of the loss of his mother, and the impassable gulf between his father and himself, and of the fear of disgrace which had haunted his nights and disfigured the world for him by day.
"Yes, it was an illusion," she cried. "I understand. I might have understood a long while since, but I would not. When those feathers came he told me why they were sent, quite simply, with his eyes on mine. When my father knew of them, he waited quite steadily and faced my father."
There was other evidence of the like kind not within Ethne's knowledge. Harry Feversham had journeyed down to Broad Place in Surrey and made his confession no less unflinchingly to the old general. But Ethne knew enough. "It was the possibility of cowardice from which he shrank, not the possibility of hurt," she exclaimed. "If only one had been a little older, a little less sure about things, a little less narrow! I should have listened. I should have understood. At all events, I should not, I think, have been cruel."
Not for the first time did remorse for that fourth feather which she had added to the three, seize upon her. She sat now crushed by it into silence. Captain Willoughby, however, was a stubborn man, unwilling upon any occasion to admit an error. He saw that Ethne's remorse by implication condemned himself, and that he was not prepared to suffer.
"Yes, but these fine distinctions are a little too elusive for practical purposes," he said. "You can't run the world on fine distinctions; so I cannot bring myself to believe that we three men were at all to blame, and if we were not, you of all people can have no reason for self-reproach."
Ethne did not consider what he precisely meant by the last reference to herself. For as he leaned complacently back in his seat, anger against him flamed suddenly hot in her. Occupied by his story, she had ceased to take stock of the story-teller. Now that he had ended, she looked him over from head to foot. An obstinate stupidity was the mark of the man to her eye. How dare he sit in judgment upon the meanest of his fellows, let alone Harry Feversham? she asked, and in the same moment recollected that she herself had endorsed his judgment. Shame tingled through all her blood; she sat with her lips set, keeping Willoughby under watch from the corners of her eyes, and waiting to pounce savagely the moment he opened his lips. There had been noticeable throughout his narrative a manner of condescension towards Feversham. "Let him use it again!" thought Ethne. But Captain Willoughby said nothing at all, and Ethne herself broke the silence. "Who of you three first thought of sending the feathers?" she asked aggressively. "Not you?"
"No; I think it was Trench," he replied.
"Ah, Trench!" Ethne exclaimed. She struck one clenched hand, the hand which held the feather, viciously into the palm of the other. "I will remember that name."
"But I share his responsibility," Willoughby assured her. "I do not shrink from it at all. I regret very much that we caused you pain and annoyance, but I do not acknowledge to any mistake in this matter. I take my feather back now, and I annul my accusation. But that is your doing."
"Mine?" asked Ethne. "What do you mean?"
Captain Willoughby turned with surprise to his companion.
"A man may live in the Soudan and even yet not be wholly ignorant of women and their great quality of forgiveness. You gave the feathers back to Feversham in order that he might redeem his honour. That is evident."
Ethne sprang to her feet before Captain Willoughby had come to the end of his sentence, and stood a little in front of him, with her face averted, and in an attitude remarkably still. Willoughby in his ignorance, like many another stupid man before him, had struck with a shrewdness and a vigour which he could never have compassed by the use of his wits. He had pointed out abruptly and suddenly to Ethne a way which she might have taken and had not, and her remorse warned her very clearly that it was the way which she ought to have taken. But she could rise to the heights. She did not seek to justify herself in her own eyes, nor would she allow Willoughby to continue in his misconception. She recognised that here she had failed in charity and justice, and she was glad that she had failed, since her failure had been the opportunity of greatness to Harry Feversham.
"Will you repeat what you said?" she asked in a low voice; "and ever so slowly, please."
"You gave the feathers back into Feversham's hand—"
"He told you that himself?"
"Yes;" and Willoughby resumed, "in order that he might by his subsequent bravery compel the men who sent them to take them back, and so redeem his honour."
"He did not tell you that?"
"No. I guessed it. You see, Feversham's disgrace was, on the face of it, impossible to retrieve. The opportunity might never have occurred—it was not likely to occur. As things happened, Feversham still waited for three years in the bazaar at Suakin before it did. No, Miss Eustace, it needed a woman's faith to conceive that plan—a woman's encouragement to keep the man who undertook it to his work."
Ethne laughed and turned back to him. Her face was tender with pride, and more than tender. Pride seemed in some strange way to hallow her, to give an unimagined benignance to her eyes, an unearthly brightness to the smile upon her lips and the colour upon her cheeks. So that Willoughby, looking at her, was carried out of himself.
"Yes," he cried, "you were the woman to plan this redemption."
Ethne laughed again, and very happily.
"Did he tell you of a fourth white feather?" she asked.
"I shall tell you the truth," she said, as she resumed her seat. "The plan was of his devising from first to last. Nor did I encourage him to its execution. For until to-day I never heard a word of it. Since the night of that dance in Donegal I have had no message from Mr. Feversham, and no news of him. I told him to take up those three feathers because they were his, and I wished to show him that I agreed with the accusations of which they were the symbols. That seems cruel? But I did more. I snapped a fourth white feather from my fan and gave him that to carry away too. It is only fair that you should know. I wanted to make an end for ever and ever, not only of my acquaintanceship with him, but of every kindly thought he might keep of me, of every kindly thought I might keep of him. I wanted to be sure myself, and I wanted him to be sure, that we should always be strangers now and—and afterwards," and the last words she spoke in a whisper. Captain Willoughby did not understand what she meant by them. It is possible that only Lieutenant Sutch and Harry Feversham himself would have understood.
"I was sad and sorry enough when I had done it," she resumed. "Indeed, indeed, I think I have always been sorry since. I think that I have never at any minute during these five years quite forgotten that fourth white feather and the quiet air of dignity with which he took it. But to-day I am glad." And her voice, though low, rang rich with the fulness of her pride. "Oh, very glad! For this was his thought, his deed. They are both all his, as I would have them be. I had no share, and of that I am very proud. He needed no woman's faith, no woman's encouragement."
"Yet he sent this back to you," said Willoughby, pointing in some perplexity to the feather which Ethne held.
"Yes," she said, "yes. He knew that I should be glad to know." And suddenly she held it close to her breast. Thus she sat for a while with her eyes shining, until Willoughby rose to his feet and pointed to the gap in the hedge by which they had entered the enclosure.
"By Jove! Jack Durrance," he exclaimed.
Durrance was standing in the gap, which was the only means of entering or going out.