THE FOUR FEATHERS
WEST AND EAST
Durrance found his body-servant waiting up for him when he had come across the fields to his own house of "Guessens."
"You can turn the lights out and go to bed," said Durrance, and he walked through the hall into his study. The name hardly described the room, for it had always been more of a gun-room than a study.
He sat for some while in his chair and then began to walk gently about the room in the dark. There were many cups and goblets scattered about the room, which Durrance had won in his past days. He knew them each one by their shape and position, and he drew a kind of comfort from the feel of them. He took them up one by one and touched them and fondled them, wondering whether, now that he was blind, they were kept as clean and bright as they used to be. This one, a thin-stemmed goblet, he had won in a regimental steeple-chase at Colchester; he could remember the day with its clouds and grey sky and the dull look of the ploughed fields between the hedges. That pewter, which stood upon his writing table and which had formed a convenient holder for his pens, when pens had been of use, he had acquired very long ago in his college "fours," when he was a freshman at Oxford. The hoof of a favourite horse mounted in silver made an ornament upon the mantelpiece. His trophies made the room a gigantic diary; he fingered his records of good days gone by and came at last to his guns and rifles.
He took them down from their racks. They were to him much what Ethne's violin was to her and had stories for his ear alone. He sat with a Remington across his knee and lived over again one long hot day in the hills to the west of Berenice, during which he had stalked a lion across stony, open country, and killed him at three hundred yards just before sunset. Another talked to him, too, of his first ibex shot in the Khor Baraka, and of antelope stalked in the mountains northward of Suakin. There was a little Greener gun which he had used upon midwinter nights in a boat upon this very creek of the Salcombe estuary. He had brought down his first mallard with that, and he lifted it and slid his left hand along the under side of the barrel and felt the butt settle comfortably into the hollow of his shoulder. But his weapons began to talk over loudly in his ears, even as Ethne's violin, in the earlier days after Harry Feversham was gone and she was left alone, had spoken with too penetrating a note to her. As he handled the locks, and was aware that he could no longer see the sights, the sum of his losses was presented to him in a very definite and incontestable way.
He put his guns away, and was seized suddenly with a desire to disregard his blindness, to pretend that it was no hindrance and to pretend so hard that it should prove not to be one. The desire grew and shook him like a passion and carried him winged out of the countries of dim stars straight to the East. The smell of the East and its noises and the domes of its mosques, the hot sun, the rabble in its streets, and the steel-blue sky overhead, caught at him till he was plucked from his chair and set pacing restlessly about his room.
He dreamed himself to Port Said, and was marshalled in the long procession of steamers down the waterway of the canal. The song of the Arabs coaling the ship was in his ears, and so loud that he could see them as they went at night-time up and down the planks between the barges and the deck, an endless chain of naked figures monotonously chanting and lurid in the red glare of the braziers. He travelled out of the canal, past the red headlands of the Sinaitic Peninsula, into the chills of the Gulf of Suez. He zigzagged down the Red Sea while the Great Bear swung northward low down in the sky above the rail of the quarterdeck, and the Southern Cross began to blaze in the south; he touched at Tor and at Yambo; he saw the tall white houses of Yeddah lift themselves out of the sea, and admired the dark brine-withered woodwork of their carved casements; he walked through the dusk of its roofed bazaars with the joy of the homesick after long years come home; and from Yeddah he crossed between the narrowing coral-reefs into the land-locked harbour of Suakin.
Westward from Suakin stretched the desert, with all that it meant to this man whom it had smitten and cast out—the quiet padding of the camels' feet in sand; the great rock-cones rising sheer and abrupt as from a rippleless ocean, towards which you march all day and get no nearer; the gorgeous momentary blaze of sunset colours in the west; the rustle of the wind through the short twilight when the west is a pure pale green and the east the darkest blue; and the downward swoop of the planets out of nothing to the earth. The inheritor of the other places dreamed himself back into his inheritance as he tramped to and fro, forgetful of his blindness and parched with desire as with a fever—until unexpectedly he heard the blackbirds and the swallows bustling and piping in the garden, and knew that outside his windows the world was white with dawn.
He waked from his dream at the homely sound. There were to be no more journeys for him; affliction had caged him and soldered a chain about his leg. He felt his way by the balustrade up the stairs to his bed. He fell asleep as the sun rose.
But at Dongola, on the great curve of the Nile southwards of Wadi Halfa, the sun was already blazing and its inhabitants were awake. There was sport prepared for them this morning under the few palm trees before the house of the Emir Wad El Nejoumi. A white prisoner captured a week before close to the wells of El Agia on the great Arbain road, by a party of Arabs, had been brought in during the night and now waited his fate at the Emir's hands. The news spread quick as a spark through the town; already crowds of men and women and children flocked to this rare and pleasant spectacle. In front of the palm trees an open space stretched to the gateway of the Emir's house; behind them a slope of sand descended flat and bare to the river.
Harry Feversham was standing under the trees, guarded by four of the Ansar soldiery. His clothes had been stripped from him; he wore only a torn and ragged jibbeh upon his body and a twist of cotton on his head to shield him from the sun. His bare shoulders and arms were scorched and blistered. His ankles were fettered, his wrists were bound with a rope of palm fibre, an iron collar was locked about his neck, to which a chain was attached, and this chain one of the soldiers held. He stood and smiled at the mocking crowd about him and seemed well pleased, like a lunatic.
That was the character which he had assumed. If he could sustain it, if he could baffle his captors, so that they were at a loss whether he was a man really daft or an agent with promises of help and arms to the disaffected tribes of Kordofan—then there was a chance that they might fear to dispose of him themselves and send him forward to Omdurman. But it was hard work. Inside the house the Emir and his counsellors were debating his destiny; on the river-bank and within his view a high gallows stood out black and most sinister against the yellow sand. Harry Feversham was very glad of the chain about his neck and the fetters on his legs. They helped him to betray no panic, by assuring him of its futility.
These hours of waiting, while the sun rose higher and higher and no one came from the gateway, were the worst he had ever as yet endured. All through that fortnight in Berber a hope of escape had sustained him, and when that lantern shone upon him from behind in the ruined acres, what had to be done must be done so quickly there was no time for fear or thought. Here there was time and too much of it.
He had time to anticipate and foresee. He felt his heart sinking till he was faint, just as in those distant days when he had heard the hounds scuffling and whining in a covert and he himself had sat shaking upon his horse. He glanced furtively towards the gallows, and foresaw the vultures perched upon his shoulders, fluttering about his eyes. But the man had grown during his years of probation. The fear of physical suffering was not uppermost in his mind, nor even the fear that he would walk unmanfully to the high gallows, but a greater dread that if he died now, here, at Dongola, Ethne would never take back that fourth feather, and his strong hope of the "afterwards" would never come to its fulfilment. He was very glad of the collar about his neck and the fetters on his legs. He summoned his wits together and standing there alone, without a companion to share his miseries, laughed and scraped and grimaced at his tormentors.
An old hag danced and gesticulated before him, singing the while a monotonous song. The gestures were pantomimic and menaced him with abominable mutilations; the words described in simple and unexpurgated language the grievous death agonies which immediately awaited him, and the eternity of torture in hell which he would subsequently suffer. Feversham understood and inwardly shuddered, but he only imitated her gestures and nodded and mowed at her as though she was singing to him of Paradise. Others, taking their war-trumpets, placed the mouths against the prisoner's ears and blew with all their might.
"Do you hear, Kaffir?" cried a child, dancing with delight before him. "Do you hear our ombeyehs? Blow louder! Blow louder!"
But the prisoner only clapped his hands, and cried out that the music was good.
Finally there came to the group a tall warrior with a long, heavy spear. A cry was raised at his approach, and a space was cleared. He stood before the captive and poised his spear, swinging it backward and forward, to make his arm supple before he thrust, like a bowler before he delivers a ball at a cricket match. Feversham glanced wildly about him, and seeing no escape, suddenly flung out his breast to meet the blow. But the spear never reached him. For as the warrior lunged from the shoulder, one of the four guards jerked the neck chain violently from behind, and the prisoner was flung, half throttled, upon his back. Three times, and each time to a roar of delight, this pastime was repeated, and then a soldier appeared in the gateway of Nejoumi's house.
"Bring him in!" he cried; and followed by the curses and threats of the crowd, the prisoner was dragged under the arch across a courtyard into a dark room.
For a few moments Feversham could see nothing. Then his eyes began to adapt themselves to the gloom, and he distinguished a tall, bearded man, who sat upon an angareb, the native bedstead of the Soudan, and two others, who squatted beside him on the ground. The man on the angareb was the Emir.
"You are a spy of the Government from Wadi Halfa," he said.
"No, I am a musician," returned the prisoner, and he laughed happily, like a man that has made a jest.
Nejoumi made a sign, and an instrument with many broken strings was handed to the captive. Feversham seated himself upon the ground, and with slow, fumbling fingers, breathing hard as he bent over the zither, he began to elicit a wavering melody. It was the melody to which Durrance had listened in the street of Tewfikieh on the eve of his last journey into the desert; and which Ethne Eustace had played only the night before in the quiet drawing-room at Southpool. It was the only melody which Feversham knew. When he had done Nejoumi began again.
"You are a spy."
"I have told you the truth," answered Feversham, stubbornly, and Nejoumi took a different tone. He called for food, and the raw liver of a camel, covered with salt and red pepper, was placed before Feversham. Seldom has a man had smaller inclination to eat, but Feversham ate, none the less, even of that unattractive dish, knowing well that reluctance would be construed as fear, and that the signs of fear might condemn him to death. And, while he ate, Nejoumi questioned him, in the silkiest voice, about the fortifications of Cairo and the strength of the garrison at Assouan, and the rumours of dissension between the Khedive and the Sirdar.
But to each question Feversham replied:—
"How should a Greek know of these matters?"
Nejoumi rose from his angareb and roughly gave an order. The soldiers seized upon Feversham and dragged him out again into the sunlight. They poured water upon the palm-rope which bound his wrists, so that the thongs swelled and bit into his flesh.
"Speak, Kaffir. You carry promises to Kordofan."
Feversham was silent. He clung doggedly to the plan over which he had so long and so carefully pondered. He could not improve upon it, he was sure, by any alteration suggested by fear, at a moment when he could not think clearly. A rope was flung about his neck, and he was pushed and driven beneath the gallows.
"Speak, Kaffir," said Nejoumi; "so shall you escape death."
Feversham smiled and grimaced, and shook his head loosely from side to side. It was astonishing to him that he could do it, that he did not fall down upon his knees and beg for mercy. It was still more astonishing to him that he felt no temptation so to demean himself. He wondered whether the oft repeated story was true, that criminals in English prisons went quietly and with dignity to the scaffold, because they had been drugged. For without drugs he seemed to be behaving with no less dignity himself. His heart was beating very fast, but it was with a sort of excitement. He did not even think of Ethne at that moment; and certainly the great dread that his strong hope would never be fulfilled did not trouble him at all. He had his allotted part to play, and he just played it; and that was all.
Nejoumi looked at him sourly for a moment. He turned to the men who stood ready to draw away from Feversham the angareb on which he was placed:—
"To-morrow," said he, "the Kaffir shall go to Omdurman."
Feversham began to feel then that the rope of palm fibre tortured his wrists.