THE FOUR FEATHERS
CAPTAIN WILLOUGHBY RETIRES
Ethne had entirely forgotten even Colonel Durrance's existence. From the moment when Captain Willoughby had put that little soiled feather which had once been white, and was now yellow, into her hand, she had had no thought for any one but Harry Feversham. She had carried Willoughby into that enclosure, and his story had absorbed her and kept her memory on the rack, as she filled out with this or that recollected detail of Harry's gestures, or voice, or looks, the deficiencies in her companion's narrative. She had been swept away from that August garden of sunlight and coloured flowers; and those five most weary years, during which she had held her head high and greeted the world with a smile of courage, were blotted from her experience. How weary they had been perhaps she never knew, until she raised her head and saw Durrance at the entrance in the hedge.
"Hush!" she said to Willoughby, and her face paled and her eyes shut tight for a moment with a spasm of pain. But she had no time to spare for any indulgence of her feelings. Her few minutes' talk with Captain Willoughby had been a holiday, but the holiday was over. She must take up again the responsibilities with which those five years had charged her, and at once. If she could not accomplish that hard task of forgetting—and she now knew very well that she never would accomplish it—she must do the next best thing, and give no sign that she had not forgotten. Durrance must continue to believe that she brought more than friendship into the marriage account.
He stood at the very entrance to the enclosure; he advanced into it. He was so quick to guess, it was not wise that he should meet Captain Willoughby or even know of his coming. Ethne looked about her for an escape, knowing very well that she would look in vain. The creek was in front of them, and three walls of high thick hedge girt them in behind and at the sides. There was but one entrance to this enclosure, and Durrance himself barred the path to it.
"Keep still," she said in a whisper. "You know him?"
"Of course. We were together for three years at Suakin. I heard that he had gone blind. I am glad to know that it is not true." This he said, noticing the freedom of Durrance's gait.
"Speak lower," returned Ethne. "It is true. He is blind."
"One would never have thought it. Consolations seem so futile. What can I say to him?"
Durrance was still standing just within the enclosure, and, as it seemed, looking straight towards the two people seated on the bench.
"Ethne," he said, rather than called; and the quiet unquestioning voice made the illusion that he saw extraordinarily complete.
"It's impossible that he is blind," said Willoughby. "He sees us."
"He sees nothing."
Again Durrance called "Ethne," but now in a louder voice, and a voice of doubt.
"Do you hear? He is not sure," whispered Ethne. "Keep very still."
"He must not know you are here," and lest Willoughby should move, she caught his arm tight in her hand. Willoughby did not pursue his inquiries. Ethne's manner constrained him to silence. She sat very still, still as she wished him to sit, and in a queer huddled attitude; she was even holding her breath; she was staring at Durrance with a great fear in her eyes; her face was strained forward, and not a muscle of it moved, so that Willoughby, as he looked at her, was conscious of a certain excitement, which grew on him for no reason but her remarkable apprehension. He began unaccountably himself to fear lest he and she should be discovered.
"He is coming towards us," he whispered.
"Not a word, not a movement."
"Ethne," Durrance cried again. He advanced farther into the enclosure and towards the seat. Ethne and Captain Willoughby sat rigid, watching him with their eyes. He passed in front of the bench, and stopped actually facing them. Surely, thought Willoughby, he sees. His eyes were upon them; he stood easily, as though he were about to speak. Even Ethne, though she very well knew that he did not see, began to doubt her knowledge.
"Ethne!" he said again, and this time in the quiet voice which he had first used. But since again no answer came, he shrugged his shoulders and turned towards the creek. His back was towards them now, but Ethne's experience had taught her to appreciate almost indefinable signs in his bearing, since nowadays his face showed her so little. Something in his attitude, in the poise of his head, even in the carelessness with which he swung his stick, told her that he was listening, and listening with all his might. Her grasp tightened on Willoughby's arm. Thus they remained for the space of a minute, and then Durrance turned suddenly and took a quick step towards the seat. Ethne, however, by this time knew the man and his ingenuities; she was prepared for some such unexpected movement. She did not stir, there was not audible the merest rustle of her skirt, and her grip still constrained Willoughby.
"I wonder where in the world she can be," said Durrance to himself aloud, and he walked back and out of the enclosure. Ethne did not free Captain Willoughby's arm until Durrance had disappeared from sight.
"That was a close shave," Willoughby said, when at last he was allowed to speak. "Suppose that Durrance had sat down on the top of us?"
"Why suppose, since he did not?" Ethne asked calmly. "You have told me everything?"
"So far as I remember."
"And all that you have told me happened in the spring?"
"The spring of last year," said Willoughby.
"Yes. I want to ask you a question. Why did you not bring this feather to me last summer?"
"Last year my leave was short. I spent it in the hills north of Suakin after ibex."
"I see," said Ethne, quietly; "I hope you had good sport."
"It wasn't bad."
Last summer Ethne had been free. If Willoughby had come home with his good news instead of shooting ibex on Jebel Araft, it would have made all the difference in her life, and the cry was loud at her heart, "Why didn't you come?" But outwardly she gave no sign of the irreparable harm which Willoughby's delay had brought about. She had the self-command of a woman who has been sorely tried, and she spoke so unconcernedly that Willoughby believed her questions prompted by the merest curiosity.
"You might have written," she suggested.
"Feversham did not suggest that there was any hurry. It would have been a long and difficult matter to explain in a letter. He asked me to go to you when I had an opportunity, and I had no opportunity before. To tell the truth, I thought it very likely that I might find Feversham had come back before me."
"Oh, no," returned Ethne, "there could be no possibility of that. The other two feathers still remain to be redeemed before he will ask me to take back mine."
Willoughby shook his head. "Feversham can never persuade Castleton and Trench to cancel their accusations as he persuaded me."
"Major Castleton was killed when the square was broken at Tamai."
"Killed?" cried Ethne, and she laughed in a short and satisfied way. Willoughby turned and stared at her, disbelieving the evidence of his ears. But her face showed him quite clearly that she was thoroughly pleased. Ethne was a Celt, and she had the Celtic feeling that death was not a very important matter. She could hate, too, and she could be hard as iron to the men she hated. And these three men she hated exceedingly. It was true that she had agreed with them, that she had given a feather, the fourth feather, to Harry Feversham just to show that she agreed, but she did not trouble her head about that. She was very glad to hear that Major Castleton was out of the world and done with.
"And Colonel Trench too?" she said.
"No," Willoughby answered. "You are disappointed? But he is even worse off than that. He was captured when engaged on a reconnaissance. He is now a prisoner in Omdurman."
"Ah!" said Ethne.
"I don't think you can have any idea," said Willoughby, severely, "of what captivity in Omdurman implies. If you had, however much you disliked the captive, you would feel some pity."
"Not I," said Ethne, stubbornly.
"I will tell you something of what it does imply."
"No. I don't wish to hear of Colonel Trench. Besides, you must go. I want you to tell me one thing first," said she, as she rose from her seat. "What became of Mr. Feversham after he had given you that feather?"
"I told him that he had done everything which could be reasonably expected; and he accepted my advice. For he went on board the first steamer which touched at Suakin on its way to Suez and so left the Soudan."
"I must find out where he is. He must come, back. Did he need money?"
"No. He still drew his allowance from his father. He told me that he had more than enough."
"I am glad of that," said Ethne, and she bade Willoughby wait within the enclosure until she returned, and went out by herself to see that the way was clear. The garden was quite empty. Durrance had disappeared from it, and the great stone terrace of the house and the house itself, with its striped sunblinds, looked a place of sleep. It was getting towards one o'clock, and the very birds were quiet amongst the trees. Indeed the quietude of the garden struck upon Ethne's senses as something almost strange. Only the bees hummed drowsily about the flowerbeds, and the voice of a lad was heard calling from the slopes of meadow on the far side of the creek. She returned to Captain Willoughby.
"You can go now," she said. "I cannot pretend friendship for you, Captain Willoughby, but it was kind of you to find me out and tell me your story. You are going back at once to Kingsbridge? I hope so. For I do not wish Colonel Durrance to know of your visit or anything of what you have told me."
"Durrance was a friend of Feversham's—his great friend," Willoughby objected.
"He is quite unaware that any feathers were sent to Mr. Feversham, so there is no need he should be informed that one of them has been taken back," Ethne answered. "He does not know why my engagement to Mr. Feversham was broken off. I do not wish him to know. Your story would enlighten him, and he must not be enlightened."
"Why?" asked Willoughby. He was obstinate by nature, and he meant to have the reason for silence before he promised to keep it. Ethne gave it to him at once very simply.
"I am engaged to Colonel Durrance," she said. It was her fear that Durrance already suspected that no stronger feeling than friendship attached her to him. If once he heard that the fault which broke her engagement to Harry Feversham had been most bravely atoned, there could be no doubt as to the course which he would insist upon pursuing. He would strip himself of her, the one thing left to him, and that she was stubbornly determined he should not do. She was bound to him in honour, and it would be a poor way of manifesting her joy that Harry Feversham had redeemed his honour if she straightway sacrificed her own.
Captain Willoughby pursed up his lips and whistled.
"Engaged to Jack Durrance!" he exclaimed. "Then I seem to have wasted my time in bringing you that feather," and he pointed towards it. She was holding it in her open hand, and she drew her hand sharply away, as though she feared for a moment that he meant to rob her of it.
"I am most grateful for it," she returned.
"It's a bit of a muddle, isn't it?" Willoughby remarked. "It seems a little rough on Feversham perhaps. It's a little rough on Jack Durrance, too, when you come to think of it." Then he looked at Ethne. He noticed her careful handling of the feather; he remembered something of the glowing look with which she had listened to his story, something of the eager tones in which she had put her questions; and he added, "I shouldn't wonder if it was rather rough on you too, Miss Eustace."
Ethne did not answer him, and they walked together out of the enclosure towards the spot where Willoughby had moored his boat. She hurried him down the bank to the water's edge, intent that he should sail away unperceived.
But Ethne had counted without Mrs. Adair, who all that morning had seen much in Ethne's movements to interest her. From the drawing-room window she had watched Ethne and Durrance meet at the foot of the terrace-steps, she had seen them walk together towards the estuary, she had noticed Willoughby's boat as it ran aground in the wide gap between the trees, she had seen a man disembark, and Ethne go forward to meet him. Mrs. Adair was not the woman to leave her post of observation at such a moment, and from the cover of the curtains she continued to watch with all the curiosity of a woman in a village who draws down the blind, that unobserved she may get a better peep at the stranger passing down the street. Ethne and the man from the boat turned away and disappeared amongst the trees, leaving Durrance forgotten and alone. Mrs. Adair thought at once of that enclosure at the water's edge. The conversation lasted for some while, and since the couple did not promptly reappear, a question flashed into her mind. "Could the stranger be Harry Feversham?" Ethne had no friends in this part of the world. The question pressed upon Mrs. Adair. She longed for an answer, and of course for that particular answer which would convict Ethne Eustace of duplicity. Her interest grew into an excitement when she saw Durrance, tired of waiting, follow upon Ethne's steps. But what came after was to interest her still more.
Durrance reappeared, to her surprise alone, and came straight to the house, up the terrace, into the drawing-room.
"Have you seen Ethne?" he asked.
"Is she not in the little garden by the water?" Mrs. Adair asked.
"No. I went into it and called to her. It was empty."
"Indeed?" said Mrs. Adair. "Then I don't know where she is. Are you going?"
Mrs. Adair made no effort to detain him at that moment.
"Perhaps you will come in and dine to-night. Eight o'clock."
"Thanks, very much. I shall be pleased," said Durrance, but he did not immediately go. He stood by the window idly swinging to and fro the tassel of the blind.
"I did not know until to-day that it was your plan that I should come home and Ethne stay with you until I found out whether a cure was likely or possible. It was very kind of you, Mrs. Adair, and I am grateful."
"It was a natural plan to propose as soon as I heard of your ill-luck."
"And when was that?" he asked unconcernedly. "The day after Calder's telegram reached her from Wadi Halfa, I suppose."
Mrs. Adair was not deceived by his attitude of carelessness. She realised that his expression of gratitude had deliberately led up to this question.
"Oh, so you knew of that telegram," she said. "I thought you did not." For Ethne had asked her not to mention it on the very day when Durrance returned to England.
"Of course I knew of it," he returned, and without waiting any longer for an answer he went out on to the terrace.
Mrs. Adair dismissed for the moment the mystery of the telegram. She was occupied by her conjecture that in the little garden by the water's edge Durrance had stood and called aloud for Ethne, while within twelve yards of him, perhaps actually within his reach, she and some one else had kept very still and had given no answer. Her conjecture was soon proved true. She saw Ethne and her companion come out again on to the open lawn. Was it Feversham? She must have an answer to that question. She saw them descend the bank towards the boat, and, stepping from her window, ran.
Thus it happened that as Willoughby rose from loosening the painter, he saw Mrs. Adair's disappointed eyes gazing into his. Mrs. Adair called to Ethne, who stood by Captain Willoughby, and came down the bank to them.
"I noticed you cross the lawn from the drawing-room window," she said.
"Yes?" answered Ethne, and she said no more. Mrs. Adair, however, did not move away, and an awkward pause followed. Ethne was forced to give in.
"I was talking to Captain Willoughby," and she turned to him. "You do not know Mrs. Adair, I think?"
"No," he replied, as he raised his hat. "But I know Mrs. Adair very well by name. I know friends of yours, Mrs. Adair—Durrance, for instance; and of course I knew—"
A glance from Ethne brought him abruptly to a stop. He began vigorously to push the nose of his boat from the sand.
"Of course, what?" asked Mrs. Adair, with a smile.
"Of course I knew of you, Mrs. Adair."
Mrs. Adair was quite clear that this was not what Willoughby had been on the point of saying when Ethne turned her eyes quietly upon him and cut him short. He was on the point of adding another name. "Captain Willoughby," she repeated to herself. Then she said:—
"You belong to Colonel Durrance's regiment, perhaps?"
"No, I belong to the North Surrey," he answered.
"Ah! Mr. Feversham's old regiment," said Mrs. Adair, pleasantly. Captain Willoughby had fallen into her little trap with a guilelessness which provoked in her a desire for a closer acquaintanceship. Whatever Willoughby knew it would be easy to extract. Ethne, however, had disconcerting ways which at times left Mrs. Adair at a loss. She looked now straight into Mrs. Adair's eyes and said calmly:—
"Captain Willoughby and I have been talking of Mr. Feversham." At the same time she held out her hand to the captain. "Good-bye," she said.
Mrs. Adair hastily interrupted.
"Colonel Durrance has gone home, but he dines with us to-night. I came out to tell you that, but I am glad that I came, for it gives me the opportunity to ask your friend to lunch with us if he will."
Captain Willoughby, who already had one leg over the bows of his boat, withdrew it with alacrity.
"It's awfully good of you, Mrs. Adair," he began.
"It is very kind indeed," Ethne continued, "but Captain Willoughby has reminded me that his leave is very short, and we have no right to detain him. Good-bye."
Captain Willoughby gazed with a vain appeal upon Miss Eustace. He had travelled all night from London, he had made the scantiest breakfast at Kingsbridge, and the notion of lunch appealed to him particularly at that moment. But her eyes rested on his with a quiet and inexorable command. He bowed, got ruefully into his boat, and pushed off from the shore.
"It's a little bit rough on me too, perhaps, Miss Eustace," he said. Ethne laughed, and returned to the terrace with Mrs. Adair. Once or twice she opened the palm of her hand and disclosed to her companion's view a small white feather, at which she laughed again, and with a clear and rather low laugh. But she gave no explanation of Captain Willoughby's errand. Had she been in Mrs. Adair's place she would not have expected one. It was her business and only hers.