THE FOUR FEATHERS
THE ANSWER TO THE OVERTURE
Ethne did not turn towards Durrance or move at all from her attitude. She sat with her violin upon her knees, looking across the moonlit garden to the band of silver in the gap of the trees; and she kept her position deliberately. For it helped her to believe that Harry Feversham himself was speaking to her, she was able to forget that he was speaking through the voice of Durrance. She almost forgot that Durrance was even in the room. She listened with Durrance's own intentness, and anxious that the voice should speak very slowly, so that the message might take a long time in the telling, and she gather it all jealously to her heart.
"It was on the night before I started eastward into the desert—for the last time," said Durrance, and the deep longing and regret with which he dwelt upon that "last time" for once left Ethne quite untouched.
"Yes," she said. "That was in February. The middle of the month, wasn't it? Do you remember the day? I should like to know the exact day if you can tell me."
"The fifteenth," said Durrance; and Ethne repeated the date meditatively.
"I was at Glenalla all February," she said. "What was I doing on the fifteenth? It does not matter."
She had felt a queer sort of surprise all the time while Willoughby was telling his story that morning, that she had not known, by some instinct, of these incidents at the actual moment of their occurrence. The surprise returned to her now. It was strange that she should have had to wait for this August night and this summer garden of moonlight and closed flowers before she learned of the meeting between Feversham and Durrance on February 15 and heard the message. And remorse came to her because of that delay. "It was my own fault," she said to herself. "If I had kept my faith in him I should have known at once. I am well punished." It did not at all occur to her that the message could convey any but the best of news. It would carry on the good tidings which she had already heard. It would enlarge and complete, so that this day might be rounded to perfection. Of this she was quite sure.
"Well?" she said. "Go on!"
"I had been busy all that day in my office finishing up my work. I turned the key in the door at ten o'clock, thinking with relief that for six weeks I should not open it, and I strolled northward out of Wadi Halfa along the Nile bank into the little town of Tewfikieh. As I entered the main street I saw a small crowd—Arabs, negroes, a Greek or two, and some Egyptian soldiers, standing outside the café, and lit up by a glare of light from within. As I came nearer I heard the sound of a violin and a zither, both most vilely played, jingling out a waltz. I stood at the back of the crowd and looked over the shoulders of the men in front of me into the room. It was a place of four bare whitewashed walls; a bar stood in one corner, a wooden bench or two were ranged against the walls, and a single unshaded paraffin lamp swung and glared from the ceiling. A troupe of itinerant musicians were playing to that crowd of negroes and Arabs and Egyptians for a night's lodging and the price of a meal. There were four of them, and, so far as I could see, all four were Greeks. Two were evidently man and wife. They were both old, both slatternly and almost in rags; the man a thin, sallow-faced fellow, with grey hair and a black moustache; the woman fat, coarse of face, unwieldy of body. Of the other two, one it seemed must be their daughter, a girl of seventeen, not good-looking really, but dressed and turned out with a scrupulous care, which in those sordid and mean surroundings lent her good looks. The care, indeed, with which she was dressed assured me she was their daughter, and to tell the truth, I was rather touched by the thought that the father and mother would go in rags so that she at all costs might be trim. A clean ribbon bound back her hair, an untorn frock of some white stuff clothed her tidily; even her shoes were neat. The fourth was a young man; he was seated in the window, with his back towards me, bending over his zither. But I could see that he wore a beard. When I came up the old man was playing the violin, though playing is not indeed the word. The noise he made was more like the squeaking of a pencil on a slate; it set one's teeth on edge; the violin itself seemed to squeal with pain. And while he fiddled, and the young man hammered at his zither, the old woman and girl slowly revolved in a waltz. It may sound comic to hear about, but if you could have seen! ... It fairly plucked at one's heart. I do not think that I have ever in my life witnessed anything quite so sad. The little crowd outside, negroes, mind you, laughing at the troupe, passing from one to the other any sort of low jest at their expense, and inside the four white people—the old woman, clumsy, heavy-footed, shining with heat, lumbering round slowly, panting with her exertions; the girl, lissom and young; the two men with their discordant, torturing music; and just above you the great planets and stars of an African sky, and just about you the great silent and spacious dignity of the moonlit desert. Imagine it! The very ineptness of the entertainment actually hurt one."
He paused for a moment, while Ethne pictured to herself the scene which he had described. She saw Harry Feversham bending over his zither, and at once she asked herself, "What was he doing with that troupe?" It was intelligible enough that he would not care to return to England. It was certain that he would not come back to her, unless she sent for him. And she knew from what Captain Willoughby had said that he expected no message from her. He had not left with Willoughby the name of any place where a letter could reach him. But what was he doing at Wadi Halfa, masquerading with this itinerant troupe? He had money; so much Willoughby had told her.
"You spoke to him?" she asked suddenly.
"To whom? Oh, to Harry?" returned Durrance. "Yes, afterwards, when I found out it was he who was playing the zither."
"Yes, how did you find out?" Ethne asked.
"The waltz came to an end. The old woman sank exhausted upon the bench against the whitewashed wall; the young man raised his head from his zither; the old man scraped a new chord upon his violin, and the girl stood forward to sing. Her voice had youth and freshness, but no other quality of music. Her singing was as inept as the rest of the entertainment. Yet the old man smiled, the mother beat time with her heavy foot, and nodded at her husband with pride in their daughter's accomplishment. And again in the throng the ill-conditioned talk, the untranslatable jests of the Arabs and the negroes went their round. It was horrible, don't you think?"
"Yes," answered Ethne, but slowly, in an absent voice. As she had felt no sympathy for Durrance when he began to speak, so she had none to spare for these three outcasts of fortune. She was too absorbed in the mystery of Harry Feversham's presence at Wadi Halfa. She was listening too closely for the message which he sent to her. Through the open window the moon threw a broad panel of silver light upon the floor of the room close to her feet. She sat gazing into it as she listened, as though it was itself a window through which, if she looked but hard enough, she might see, very small and far away, that lighted café blazing upon the street of the little town of Tewfikieh on the frontier of the Soudan.
"Well?" she asked. "And after the song was ended?"
"The young man with his back towards me," Durrance resumed, "began to fumble out a solo upon the zither. He struck so many false notes, no tune was to be apprehended at the first. The laughter and noise grew amongst the crowd, and I was just turning away, rather sick at heart, when some notes, a succession of notes played correctly by chance, suddenly arrested me. I listened again, and a sort of haunting melody began to emerge—a weak thin thing with no soul in it, a ghost of a melody, and yet familiar. I stood listening in the street of sand, between the hovels fringed by a row of stunted trees, and I was carried away out of the East to Ramelton and to a summer night beneath a melting sky of Donegal, when you sat by the open window as you sit now and played the Musoline Overture, which you have played again to-night."
"It was a melody from this overture?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, and it was Harry Feversham who played the melody. I did not guess it at once. I was not very quick in those days."
"But you are now," said Ethne.
"Quicker, at all events. I should have guessed it now. Then, however, I was only curious. I wondered how it was that an itinerant Greek came to pick up the tune. At all events, I determined to reward him for his diligence. I thought that you would like me to."
"Yes," said Ethne, in a whisper.
"So, when he came out from the café, and with his hat in his hand passed through the jeering crowd, I threw a sovereign into the hat. He turned to me with a start of surprise. In spite of his beard I knew him. Besides, before he could check himself, he cried out 'Jack!'"
"You can have made no mistake, then," said Ethne, in a wondering voice. "No, the man who strummed upon the zither was—" the Christian name was upon her lips, but she had the wit to catch it back unuttered—"was Mr. Feversham. But he knew no music I remember very well." She laughed with a momentary recollection of Feversham's utter inability to appreciate any music except that which she herself evoked from her violin. "He had no ear. You couldn't invent a discord harsh enough even to attract his attention. He could never have remembered any melody from the Musoline Overture."
"Yet it was Harry Feversham," he answered. "Somehow he had remembered. I can understand it. He would have so little he cared to remember, and that little he would have striven with all his might to bring clearly back to mind. Somehow, too, by much practice, I suppose, he had managed to elicit from his zither some sort of resemblance to what he remembered. Can't you imagine him working the scrap of music out in his brain, humming it over, whistling it uncounted times with perpetual errors and confusions, until some fine day he got it safe and sure and fixed it in his thoughts? I can. Can't you imagine him, then, picking it out sedulously and laboriously on the strings? I can. Indeed, I can."
Thus Ethne got her answer, and Durrance interpreted it to her understanding. She sat silent and very deeply moved by the story he had told to her. It was fitting that this overture, her favourite piece of music, should convey the message that he had not forgotten her, that in spite of the fourth white feather he thought of her with friendship. Harry Feversham had not striven so laboriously to learn that melody in vain. Ethne was stirred as she had thought nothing would ever again have the power to stir her. She wondered whether Harry, as he sat in the little bare whitewashed café, and strummed out his music to the negroes and Greeks and Arabs gathered about the window, had dreamed, as she had done to-night, that somehow, thin and feeble as it was, some echo of the melody might reach across the world. She knew now for very certain that, however much she might in the future pretend to forget Harry Feversham, it would never be more than a pretence. The vision of the lighted café in the desert town would never be very far from her thoughts, but she had no intention of relaxing on that account from her determination to pretend to forget. The mere knowledge that she had at one time been unjustly harsh to Harry, made her yet more resolved that Durrance should not suffer for any fault of hers.
"I told you last year, Ethne, at Hill Street," Durrance resumed, "that I never wished to see Feversham again. I was wrong. The reluctance was all on his side and not at all on mine. For the moment that he realised he had called out my name he tried to edge backward from me into the crowd, he began to gabble Greek, but I caught him by the arm, and I would not let him go. He had done you some great wrong. That I know; that I knew. But I could not remember it then. I only remembered that years before Harry Feversham had been my friend, my one great friend; that we had rowed in the same college boat at Oxford, he at stroke, I at seven; that the stripes on his jersey during three successive eights had made my eyes dizzy during those last hundred yards of spurt past the barges. We had bathed together in Sandford Lasher on summer afternoons. We had had supper on Kennington Island; we had cut lectures and paddled up the Cher to Islip. And here he was at Wadi Halfa, herding with that troupe, an outcast, sunk to such a depth of ill-fortune that he must come to that squalid little town and play the zither vilely before a crowd of natives and a few Greek clerks for his night's lodging and the price of a meal."
"No," Ethne interrupted suddenly. "It was not for that reason that he went to Wadi Halfa."
"Why, then?" asked Durrance.
"I cannot think. But he was not in any need of money. His father had continued his allowance, and he had accepted it."
"You are sure?"
"Quite sure. I heard it only to-day," said Ethne.
It was a slip, but Ethne for once was off her guard that night. She did not even notice that she had made a slip. She was too engrossed in Durrance's story. Durrance himself, however, was not less preoccupied, and so the statement passed for the moment unobserved by either.
"So you never knew what brought Mr. Feversham to Halfa?" she asked. "Did you not ask him? Why didn't you? Why?"
She was disappointed, and the bitterness of her disappointment gave passion to her cry. Here was the last news of Harry Feversham, and it was brought to her incomplete, like the half sheet of a letter. The omission might never be repaired.
"I was a fool," said Durrance. There was almost as much regret in his voice now as there had been in hers; and because of that regret he did not remark the passion with which she had spoken. "I shall not easily forgive myself. He was my friend, you see. I had him by the arm, and I let him go. I was a fool." And he knocked upon his forehead with his fist.
"He tried Arabic," Durrance resumed, "pleading that he and his companions were just poor peaceable people, that if I had given him too much money, I should take it back, and all the while he dragged away from me. But I held him fast. I said, 'Harry Feversham, that won't do,' and upon that he gave in and spoke in English, whispering it. 'Let me go, Jack, let me go.' There was the crowd about us. It was evident that Harry had some reason for secrecy; it might have been shame, for all I knew, shame at his downfall. I said, 'Come up to my quarters in Halfa as soon as you are free,' and I let him go. All that night I waited for him on the verandah, but he did not come. In the morning I had to start across the desert. I almost spoke of him to a friend who came to see me start, to Calder, in fact—you know of him—the man who sent you the telegram," said Durrance, with a laugh.
"Yes, I remember," Ethne answered.
It was the second slip she had made that night. The receipt of Calder's telegram was just one of the things which Durrance was not to know. But again she was unaware that she had made a slip at all. She did not even consider how Durrance had come to know or guess that the telegram had ever been despatched.
"At the very last moment," Durrance resumed, "when my camel had risen from the ground, I stooped down to speak to him, to tell him to see to Feversham. But I did not. You see I knew nothing about his allowance. I merely thought that he had fallen rather low. It did not seem fair to him that another should know of it. So I rode on and kept silence."
Ethne nodded her head. She could not but approve, however poignant her regret for the lost news.
"So you never saw Mr. Feversham again?"
"I was away nine weeks. I came back blind," he answered simply, and the very simplicity of his words went to Ethne's heart. He was apologising for his blindness, which had hindered him from inquiring. She began to wake to the comprehension that it was really Durrance who was speaking to her, but he continued to speak, and what he said drove her quite out of all caution.
"I went at once to Cairo, and Calder came with me. There I told him of Harry Feversham, and how I had seen him at Tewfikieh. I asked Calder when he got back to Halfa to make inquiries, to find and help Harry Feversham if he could; I asked him, too, to let me know the result. I received a letter from Calder a week ago, and I am troubled by it, very much troubled."
"What did he say?" Ethne asked apprehensively, and she turned in her chair away from the moonlight towards the shadows of the room and Durrance. She bent forward to see his face, but the darkness hid it. A sudden fear struck through her and chilled her blood, but out of the darkness Durrance spoke.
"That the two women and the old Greek had gone back northward on a steamer to Assouan."
"Mr. Feversham remained at Wadi Halfa, then? That is so, isn't it?" she said eagerly.
"No," Durrance replied. "Harry Feversham did not remain. He slipped past Halfa the day after I started toward the east. He went out in the morning, and to the south."
"Into the desert?"
"Yes, but the desert to the south, the enemy's country. He went just as I saw him, carrying his zither. He was seen. There can be no doubt."
Ethne was quite silent for a little while. Then she asked:—
"You have that letter with you?"
"I should like to read it."
She rose from her chair and walked across to Durrance. He took the letter from his pocket and gave it to her, and she carried it over to the window. The moonlight was strong. Ethne stood close by the window, with a hand pressed upon her heart, and read it through once and again. The letter was explicit; the Greek who owned the café at which the troupe had performed admitted that Joseppi, under which name he knew Feversham, had wandered south, carrying a water-skin and a store of dates, though why, he either did not know or would not tell. Ethne had a question to ask, but it was some time before she could trust her lips to utter it distinctly and without faltering.
"What will happen to him?"
"At the best, capture; at the worst, death. Death by starvation, or thirst, or at the hands of the Dervishes. But there is just a hope it might be only capture and imprisonment. You see he was white. If caught, his captors might think him a spy; they would be sure he had knowledge of our plans and our strength. I think that they would most likely send him to Omdurman. I have written to Calder. Spies go out and in from Wadi Halfa. We often hear of things which happen in Omdurman. If Feversham is taken there, sooner or later I shall know. But he must have gone mad. It is the only explanation."
Ethne had another, and she knew hers to be the right one. She was off her guard, and she spoke it aloud to Durrance.
"Colonel Trench," said she, "is a prisoner at Omdurman."
"Oh, yes," answered Durrance. "Feversham will not be quite alone. There is some comfort in that, and perhaps something may be done. When I hear from Calder I will tell you. Perhaps something may be done."
It was evident that Durrance had misconstrued her remark. He at all events was still in the dark as to the motive which had taken Feversham southward beyond the Egyptian patrols. And he must remain in the dark. For Ethne did not even now slacken in her determination still to pretend to have forgotten. She stood at the window with the letter clenched in her hand. She must utter no cry, she must not swoon; she must keep very still and quiet, and speak when needed with a quiet voice, even though she knew that Harry Feversham had gone southward to join Colonel Trench at Omdurman. But so much was beyond her strength. For as Colonel Durrance began to speak again, the desire to escape, to be alone with this terrible news, became irresistible. The cool quietude of the garden, the dark shadows of the trees, called to her.
"Perhaps you will wonder," said Durrance, "why I have told you to-night what I have up till now kept to myself. I did not dare to tell it you before. I want to explain why."
Ethne did not notice the exultation in his voice; she did not consider what his explanation might be; she only felt that she could not now endure to listen to it. The mere sound of a human voice had become an unendurable thing. She hardly knew indeed that Durrance was speaking, she was only aware that a voice spoke, and that the voice must stop. She was close by the window; a single silent step, and she was across the sill and free. Durrance continued to speak out of the darkness, engrossed in what he said, and Ethne did not listen to a word. She gathered her skirts carefully, so that they should not rustle, and stepped from the window. This was the third slip which she made upon that eventful night.