THE FOUR FEATHERS
ETHNE MAKES ANOTHER SLIP
Mrs. Adair speculated with some uneasiness upon the consequences of the disclosures which she had made to Durrance. She was in doubt as to the course which he would take. It seemed possible that he might frankly tell Ethne of the mistake which he had made. He might admit that he had discovered the unreality of her affection for him, and the reality of her love for Feversham; and if he made that admission, however carefully he tried to conceal her share in his discovery, he would hardly succeed. She would have to face Ethne, and she dreaded the moment when her companion's frank eyes would rest quietly upon hers and her lips demand an explanation. It was consequently a relief to her at first that no outward change was visible in the relations of Ethne and Durrance. They met and spoke as though that day on which Willoughby had landed at the garden, and the evening when Ethne had played the Musoline Overture upon the violin, had been blotted from their experience. Mrs. Adair was relieved at first, but when the sense of personal danger passed from her, and she saw that her interference had been apparently without effect, she began to be puzzled. A little while, and she was both angry and disappointed.
Durrance, indeed, quickly made up his mind. Ethne wished him not to know; it was some consolation to her in her distress to believe that she had brought happiness to this one man whose friend she genuinely was. And of that consolation Durrance was aware. He saw no reason to destroy it—for the present. He must know certainly whether a misunderstanding or an irreparable breach separated Ethne from Feversham before he took the steps he had in mind. He must have sure knowledge, too, of Harry Feversham's fate. Therefore he pretended to know nothing; he abandoned even his habit of attention and scrutiny, since for these there was no longer any need; he forced himself to a display of contentment; he made light of his misfortune, and professed to find in Ethne's company more than its compensation.
"You see," he said to her, "one can get used to blindness and take it as the natural thing. But one does not get used to you, Ethne. Each time one meets you, one discovers something new and fresh to delight one. Besides, there is always the possibility of a cure."
He had his reward, for Ethne understood that he had laid aside his suspicions, and she was able to set off his indefatigable cheerfulness against her own misery. And her misery was great. If for one day she had recaptured the lightness of heart which had been hers before the three white feathers came to Ramelton, she had now recaptured something of the grief which followed upon their coming. A difference there was, of course. Her pride was restored, and she had a faint hope born of Durrance's words that Harry after all might perhaps be rescued. But she knew again the long and sleepless nights and the dull hot misery of the head as she waited for the grey of the morning. For she could no longer pretend to herself that she looked upon Harry Feversham as a friend who was dead. He was living, and in what straits she dreaded to think, and yet thirsted to know. At rare times, indeed, her impatience got the better of her will.
"I suppose that escape is possible from Omdurman," she said one day, constraining her voice to an accent of indifference.
"Possible? Yes, I think so," Durrance answered cheerfully. "Of course it is difficult and would in any case take time. Attempts, for instance, have been made to get Trench out and others, but the attempts have not yet succeeded. The difficulty is the go-between."
Ethne looked quickly at Durrance.
"The go-between?" she asked, and then she said, "I think I begin to understand," and pulled herself up abruptly. "You mean the Arab who can come and go between Omdurman and the Egyptian frontier?"
"Yes. He is usually some Dervish pedlar or merchant trading with the tribes of the Soudan, who slips into Wadi Halfa or Assouan or Suakin and undertakes the work. Of course his risk is great. He would have short shrift in Omdurman if his business were detected. So it is not to be wondered at that he shirks the danger at the last moment. As often as not, too, he is a rogue. You make your arrangements with him in Egypt, and hand him over the necessary money. In six months or a year he comes back alone, with a story of excuses. It was summer, and the season unfavourable for an escape. Or the prisoners were more strictly guarded. Or he himself was suspected. And he needs more money. His tale may be true, and you give him more money; and he comes back again, and again he comes back alone."
Ethne nodded her head.
Durrance had unconsciously explained to her a point which till now she had not understood. She was quite sure that Harry Feversham aimed in some way at bringing help to Colonel Trench, but in what way his own capture was to serve that aim she could not determine. Now she understood: he was to be his own go-between, and her hopes drew strength from this piece of new knowledge. For it was likely that he had laid his plans with care. He would be very anxious that the second feather should come back to her, and if he could fetch Trench safely out of Omdurman, he would not himself remain behind.
Ethne was silent for a little while. They were sitting on the terrace, and the sunset was red upon the water of the creek.
"Life would not be easy, I suppose, in the prison of Omdurman," she said, and again she forced herself to indifference.
"Easy!" exclaimed Durrance; "no, it would not be easy. A hovel crowded with Arabs, without light or air, and the roof perhaps two feet above your head, into which you were locked up from sundown to morning; very likely the prisoners would have to stand all night in that foul den, so closely packed would they be. Imagine it, even here in England, on an evening like this! Think what it would be on an August night in the Soudan! Especially if you had memories, say, of a place like this, to make the torture worse."
Ethne looked out across that cool garden. At this very moment Harry Feversham might be struggling for breath in that dark and noisome hovel, dry of throat and fevered with the heat, with a vision before his eyes of the grass slopes of Ramelton and with the music of the Lennon River liquid in his ears.
"One would pray for death," said Ethne, slowly, "unless—" She was on the point of adding "unless one went there deliberately with a fixed thing to do," but she cut the sentence short. Durrance carried it on:—
"Unless there was a chance of escape," he said. "And there is a chance—if Feversham is in Omdurman."
He was afraid that he had allowed himself to say too much about the horrors of the prison in Omdurman, and he added: "Of course, what I have described to you is mere hearsay and not to be trusted. We have no knowledge. Prisoners may not have such bad times as we think;" and thereupon he let the subject drop. Nor did Ethne mention it again. It occurred to her at times to wonder in what way Durrance had understood her abrupt disappearance from the drawing-room on the night when he had told her of his meeting with Harry Feversham. But he never referred to it himself, and she thought it wise to imitate his example. The noticeable change in his manner, the absence of that caution which had so distressed her, allayed her fears. It seemed that he had found for himself some perfectly simple and natural explanation. At times, too, she asked herself why Durrance had told her of that meeting in Wadi Halfa, and of Feversham's subsequent departure to the south. But for that she found an explanation—a strange explanation, perhaps, but it was simple enough and satisfactory to her. She believed that the news was a message of which Durrance was only the instrument. It was meant for her ears, and for her comprehension alone, and Durrance was bound to convey it to her by the will of a power above him. His real reason she had not stayed to hear.
During the month of September, then, they kept up the pretence. Every morning when Durrance was in Devonshire he would come across the fields to Ethne at The Pool, and Mrs. Adair, watching them as they talked and laughed without a shadow of embarrassment or estrangement, grew more angry, and found it more difficult to hold her peace and let the pretence go on. It was a month of strain and tension to all three, and not one of them but experienced a great relief when Durrance visited his oculist in London. And those visits increased in number, and lengthened in duration. Even Ethne was grateful for them. She could throw off the mask for a little while; she had an opportunity to be tired; she had solitude wherein to gain strength to resume her high spirits upon Durrance's return. There came hours when despair seized hold of her. "Shall I be able to keep up the pretence when we are married, when we are always together?" she asked herself. But she thrust the question back unanswered; she dared not look forward, lest even now her strength should fail her.
After the third visit Durrance said to her:—
"Do you remember that I once mentioned a famous oculist at Wiesbaden? It seems advisable that I should go to him."
"You are recommended to go?"
"Yes, and to go alone."
Ethne looked up at him with a shrewd, quick glance.
"You think that I should be dull at Wiesbaden," she said. "There is no fear of that. I can rout out some relative to go with me."
"No; it is on my own account," answered Durrance. "I shall perhaps have to go into a home. It is better to be quite quiet and to see no one for a time."
"You are sure?" Ethne asked. "It would hurt me if I thought you proposed this plan because you felt I would be happier at Glenalla."
"No, that is not the reason," Durrance answered, and he answered quite truthfully. He felt it necessary for both of them that they should separate. He, no less than Ethne, suffered under the tyranny of perpetual simulation. It was only because he knew how much store she set upon carrying out her resolve that two lives should not be spoilt because of her, that he was able to hinder himself from crying out that he knew the truth.
"I am returning to London next week," he added, "and when I come back I shall be in a position to tell you whether I am to go to Wiesbaden or not."
Durrance had reason to be glad that he had mentioned his plan before the arrival of Calder's telegram from Wadi Halfa. Ethne was unable to connect his departure from her with the receipt of any news about Feversham. The telegram came one afternoon, and Durrance took it across to The Pool in the evening and showed it to Ethne. There were only four words to the telegram:—
"Feversham imprisoned at Omdurman."
Durrance, with one of the new instincts of delicacy which had been born in him lately by reason of his sufferings and the habit of thought, had moved away from Ethne's side as soon as he had given it to her, and had joined Mrs. Adair, who was reading a book in the drawing-room. He had folded up the telegram, besides, so that by the time Ethne had unfolded it and saw the words, she was alone upon the terrace. She remembered what Durrance had said to her about the prison, and her imagination enlarged upon his words. The quiet of a September evening was upon the fields, a light mist rose from the creek and crept over the garden bank across the lawn. Already the prison doors were shut in that hot country at the junction of the Niles. "He is to pay for his fault ten times over, then," she cried, in revolt against the disproportion. "And the fault was his father's and mine too more than his own. For neither of us understood."
She blamed herself for the gift of that fourth feather. She leaned upon the stone balustrade with her eyes shut, wondering whether Harry would outlive this night, whether he was still alive to outlive it. The very coolness of the stones on which her hands pressed became the bitterest of reproaches.
"Something can now be done."
Durrance was coming from the window of the drawing-room, and spoke as he came, to warn her of his approach. "He was and is my friend; I cannot leave him there. I shall write to-night to Calder. Money will not be spared. He is my friend, Ethne. You will see. From Suakin or from Assouan something will be done."
He put all the help to be offered to the credit of his own friendship. Ethne was not to believe that he imagined she had any further interest in Harry Feversham.
She turned to him suddenly, almost interrupting him.
"Major Castleton is dead?" she said.
"Castleton?" he exclaimed. "There was a Castleton in Feversham's regiment. Is that the man?"
"Yes. He is dead?"
"He was killed at Tamai."
"You are sure—quite sure?"
"He was within the square of the Second Brigade on the edge of the great gulley when Osman Digna's men sprang out of the earth and broke through. I was in that square, too. I saw Castleton killed."
"I am glad," said Ethne.
She spoke quite simply and distinctly. The first feather had been brought back by Captain Willoughby. It was just possible that Colonel Trench might bring back the second. Harry Feversham had succeeded once under great difficulties, in the face of great peril. The peril was greater now, the difficulties more arduous to overcome; that she clearly understood. But she took the one success as an augury that another might follow it. Feversham would have laid his plans with care; he had money wherewith to carry them out; and, besides, she was a woman of strong faith. But she was relieved to know that the sender of the third feather could never be approached. Moreover, she hated him, and there was an end of the matter.
Durrance was startled. He was a soldier of a type not so rare as the makers of war stories wish their readers to believe. Hector of Troy was his ancestor; he was neither hysterical in his language nor vindictive in his acts; he was not an elderly schoolboy with a taste for loud talk, but a quiet man who did his work without noise, who could be stern when occasion needed and of an unflinching severity, but whose nature was gentle and compassionate. And this barbaric utterance of Ethne Eustace he did not understand.
"You disliked Major Castleton so much?" he exclaimed.
"I never knew him."
"Yet you are glad that he is dead?"
"I am quite glad," said Ethne, stubbornly.
She made another slip when she spoke thus of Major Castleton, and Durrance did not pass it by unnoticed. He remembered it, and thought it over in his gun-room at Guessens. It added something to the explanation which he was building up of Harry Feversham's disgrace and disappearance. The story was gradually becoming clear to his sharpened wits. Captain Willoughby's visit and the token he had brought had given him the clue. A white feather could mean nothing but an accusation of cowardice. Durrance could not remember that he had ever detected any signs of cowardice in Harry Feversham, and the charge startled him perpetually into incredulity.
But the fact remained. Something had happened on the night of the ball at Lennon House, and from that date Harry had been an outcast. Suppose that a white feather had been forwarded to Lennon House, and had been opened in Ethne's presence? Or more than one white feather? Ethne had come back from her long talk with Willoughby holding that white feather as though there was nothing so precious in all the world.
So much Mrs. Adair had told him.
It followed, then, that the cowardice was atoned, or in one particular atoned. Ethne's recapture of her youth pointed inevitably to that conclusion. She treasured the feather because it was no longer a symbol of cowardice but a symbol of cowardice atoned.
But Harry Feversham had not returned, he still slunk in the world's by-ways. Willoughby, then, was not the only man who had brought the accusation; there were others—two others. One of the two Durrance had long since identified. When Durrance had suggested that Harry might be taken to Omdurman, Ethne had at once replied, "Colonel Trench is in Omdurman." She needed no explanation of Harry's disappearance from Wadi Halfa into the southern Soudan. It was deliberate; he had gone out to be captured, to be taken to Omdurman. Moreover, Ethne had spoken of the untrustworthiness of the go-between, and there again had helped Durrance in his conjectures. There was some obligation upon Feversham to come to Trench's help. Suppose that Feversham had laid his plans of rescue, and had ventured out into the desert that he might be his own go-between. It followed that a second feather had been sent to Ramelton, and that Trench had sent it.
To-night Durrance was able to join Major Castleton to Trench and Willoughby. Ethne's satisfaction at the death of a man whom she did not know could mean but the one thing. There would be the same obligation resting upon Feversham with regard to Major Castleton if he lived. It seemed likely that a third feather had come to Lennon House, and that Major Castleton had sent it.
Durrance pondered over the solution of the problem, and more and more he found it plausible. There was one man who could have told him the truth and who had refused to tell it, who would no doubt still refuse to tell it. But that one man's help Durrance intended to enlist, and to this end he must come with the story pat upon his lips and no request for information.
"Yes," he said, "I think that after my next visit to London I can pay a visit to Lieutenant Sutch."