THE FOUR FEATHERS
DURRANCE LETS HIS CIGAR GO OUT
Captain Willoughby was known at his club for a bore. He was a determined raconteur of pointless stories about people with whom not one of his audience was acquainted. And there was no deterring him, for he did not listen, he only talked. He took the most savage snub with a vacant and amicable face; and, wrapped in his own dull thoughts, he continued his copious monologue. In the smoking-room or at the supper-table he crushed conversation flat as a steam-roller crushes a road. He was quite irresistible. Trite anecdotes were sandwiched between aphorisms of the copybook; and whether anecdote or aphorism, all was delivered with the air of a man surprised by his own profundity. If you waited long enough, you had no longer the will power to run away, you sat caught in a web of sheer dulness. Only those, however, who did not know him waited long enough; the rest of his fellow-members at his appearance straightway rose and fled.
It happened, therefore, that within half an hour of his entrance to his club, he usually had one large corner of the room entirely to himself; and that particular corner up to the moment of his entrance had been the most frequented. For he made it a rule to choose the largest group as his audience. He was sitting in this solitary state one afternoon early in October, when the waiter approached him and handed to him a card.
Captain Willoughby took it with alacrity, for he desired company, and his acquaintances had all left the club to fulfil the most pressing and imperative engagements. But as he read the card his countenance fell. "Colonel Durrance!" he said, and scratched his head thoughtfully. Durrance had never in his life paid him a friendly visit before, and why should he go out of his way to do so now? It looked as if Durrance had somehow got wind of his journey to Kingsbridge.
"Does Colonel Durrance know that I am in the club?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," replied the waiter.
"Very well. Show him in."
Durrance had, no doubt come to ask questions, and diplomacy would be needed to elude them. Captain Willoughby had no mind to meddle any further in the affairs of Miss Ethne Eustace. Feversham and Durrance must fight their battle without his intervention. He did not distrust his powers of diplomacy, but he was not anxious to exert them in this particular case, and he looked suspiciously at Durrance as he entered the room. Durrance, however, had apparently no questions to ask. Willoughby rose from his chair, and crossing the room, guided his visitor over to his deserted corner.
"Will you smoke?" he said, and checked himself. "I beg your pardon."
"Oh, I'll smoke," Durrance answered. "It's not quite true that a man can't enjoy his tobacco without seeing the smoke of it. If I let my cigar out, I should know at once. But you will see, I shall not let it out." He lighted his cigar with deliberation and leaned back in his chair.
"I am lucky to find you, Willoughby," he continued, "for I am only in town for to-day. I come up every now and then from Devonshire to see my oculist, and I was very anxious to meet you if I could. On my last visit Mather told me that you were away in the country. You remember Mather, I suppose? He was with us in Suakin."
"Of course, I remember him quite well," said Willoughby, heartily. He was more than willing to talk about Mather; he had a hope that in talking about Mather, Durrance might forget that other matter which caused him anxiety.
"We are both of us curious," Durrance continued, "and you can clear up the point we are curious about. Did you ever come across an Arab called Abou Fatma?"
"Abou Fatma," said Willoughby, slowly, "one of the Hadendoas?"
"No, a man of the Kabbabish tribe."
"Abou Fatma?" Willoughby repeated, as though for the first time he had heard the name. "No, I never came across him;" and then he stopped. It occurred to Durrance that it was not a natural place at which to stop; Willoughby might have been expected to add, "Why do you ask me?" or some question of the kind. But he kept silent. As a matter of fact, he was wondering how in the world Durrance had ever come to hear of Abou Fatma, whose name he himself had heard for the first and last time a year ago upon the verandah of the Palace at Suakin. For he had spoken the truth. He never had come across Abou Fatma, although Feversham had spoken of him.
"That makes me still more curious," Durrance continued. "Mather and I were together on the last reconnaissance in '84, and we found Abou Fatma hiding in the bushes by the Sinkat fort. He told us about the Gordon letters which he had hidden in Berber. Ah! you remember his name now."
"I was merely getting my pipe out of my pocket," said Willoughby. "But I do remember the name now that you mention the letters."
"They were brought to you in Suakin fifteen months or so back. Mather showed me the paragraph in the Evening Standard. And I am curious as to whether Abou Fatma returned to Berber and recovered them. But since you have never come across him, it follows that he was not the man."
Captain Willoughby began to feel sorry that he had been in such haste to deny all acquaintance with Abou Fatma of the Kabbabish tribe.
"No; it was not Abou Fatma," he said, with an awkward sort of hesitation. He dreaded the next question which Durrance would put to him. He filled his pipe, pondering what answer he should make to it. But Durrance put no question at all for the moment.
"I wondered," he said slowly. "I thought that Abou Fatma would hardly return to Berber. For, indeed, whoever undertook the job undertook it at the risk of his life, and, since Gordon was dead, for no very obvious reason."
"Quite so," said Willoughby, in a voice of relief. It seemed that Durrance's curiosity was satisfied with the knowledge that Abou Fatma had not recovered the letters. "Quite so. Since Gordon was dead, for no reason."
"For no obvious reason, I think I said," Durrance remarked imperturbably. Willoughby turned and glanced suspiciously at his companion, wondering whether, after all, Durrance knew of his visit to Kingsbridge and its motive. Durrance, however, smoked his cigar, leaning back in his chair with his face tilted up towards the ceiling. He seemed, now that his curiosity was satisfied, to have lost interest in the history of the Gordon letters. At all events, he put no more questions upon that subject to embarrass Captain Willoughby, and indeed there was no need that he should. Thinking over the possible way by which Harry Feversham might have redeemed himself in Willoughby's eyes from the charge of cowardice, Durrance could only hit upon this recovery of the letters from the ruined wall in Berber. There had been no personal danger to the inhabitants of Suakin since the days of that last reconnaissance. The great troop-ships had steamed between the coral reefs towards Suez, and no cry for help had ever summoned them back. Willoughby risked only his health in that white palace on the Red Sea. There could not have been a moment when Feversham was in a position to say, "Your life was forfeit but for me, whom you call coward." And Durrance, turning over in his mind all the news and gossip which had come to him at Wadi Halfa or during his furloughs, had been brought to conjecture whether that fugitive from Khartum, who had told him his story in the glacis of the silent ruined fort of Sinkat during one drowsy afternoon of May, had not told it again at Suakin within Feversham's hearing. He was convinced now that his conjecture was correct.
Willoughby's reticence was in itself a sufficient confirmation. Willoughby, without doubt, had been instructed by Ethne to keep his tongue in a leash. Colonel Durrance was prepared for reticence, he looked to reticence as the answer to his conjecture. His trained ear, besides, had warned him that Willoughby was uneasy at his visit and careful in his speech. There had been pauses, during which Durrance was as sure as though he had eyes wherewith to see, that his companion was staring at him suspiciously and wondering how much he knew, or how little. There had been an accent of wariness and caution in his voice, which was hatefully familiar to Durrance's ears, for just with that accent Ethne had been wont to speak. Moreover, Durrance had set traps,—that remark of his "for no obvious reason, I think I said," had been one,—and a little start here, or a quick turn there, showed him that Willoughby had tumbled into them.
He had no wish, however, that Willoughby should write off to Ethne and warn her that Durrance was making inquiries. That was a possibility, he recognised, and he set himself to guard against it.
"I want to tell you why I was anxious to meet you," he said. "It was because of Harry Feversham;" and Captain Willoughby, who was congratulating himself that he was well out of an awkward position, fairly jumped in his seat. It was not Durrance's policy, however, to notice his companion's agitation, and he went on quickly: "Something happened to Feversham. It's more than five years ago now. He did something, I suppose, or left something undone,—the secret, at all events, has been closely kept,—and he dropped out, and his place knew him no more. Now you are going back to the Soudan, Willoughby?"
"Yes," Willoughby answered, "in a week's time."
"Well, Harry Feversham is in the Soudan," said Durrance, leaning towards his companion.
"You know that?" exclaimed Willoughby.
"Yes, for I came across him this Spring at Wadi Halfa," Durrance continued. "He had fallen rather low," and he told Willoughby of their meeting outside of the café of Tewfikieh. "It's strange, isn't it?—a man whom one knew very well going under like that in a second, disappearing before your eyes as it were, dropping plumb out of sight as though down an oubliette in an old French castle. I want you to look out for him, Willoughby, and do what you can to set him on his legs again. Let me know if you chance on him. Harry Feversham was a friend of mine—one of my few real friends."
"All right," said Willoughby, cheerfully. Durrance knew at once from the tone of his voice that suspicion was quieted in him. "I will look out for Feversham. I remember he was a great friend of yours."
He stretched out his hand towards the matches upon the table beside him. Durrance heard the scrape of the phosphorus and the flare of the match. Willoughby was lighting his pipe. It was a well-seasoned piece of briar, and needed a cleaning; it bubbled as he held the match to the tobacco and sucked at the mouthpiece.
"Yes, a great friend," said Durrance. "You and I dined with him in his flat high up above St. James's Park just before we left England."
And at that chance utterance Willoughby's briar pipe ceased suddenly to bubble. A moment's silence followed, then Willoughby swore violently, and a second later he stamped upon the carpet. Durrance's imagination was kindled by this simple sequence of events, and he straightway made up a little picture in his mind. In one chair himself smoking his cigar, a round table holding a match-stand on his left hand, and on the other side of the table Captain Willoughby in another chair. But Captain Willoughby lighting his pipe and suddenly arrested in the act by a sentence spoken without significance, Captain Willoughby staring suspiciously in his slow-witted way at the blind man's face, until the lighted match, which he had forgotten, burnt down to his fingers, and he swore and dropped it and stamped it out upon the floor. Durrance had never given a thought to that dinner till this moment. It was possible it might deserve much thought.
"There were you and I and Feversham present," he went on. "Feversham had asked us there to tell us of his engagement to Miss Eustace. He had just come back from Dublin. That was almost the last we saw of him." He took a pull at his cigar and added, "By the way, there was a third man present."
"Was there?" asked Willoughby. "It's so long ago."
"To be sure, Trench was present. It will be a long time, I am afraid, before we dine at the same table with poor old Trench again."
The carelessness of his voice was well assumed; he leaned forwards and struck another match and lighted his pipe. As he did so, Durrance laid down his cigar upon the table edge.
"And we shall never dine with Castleton again," he said slowly.
"Castleton wasn't there," Willoughby exclaimed, and quickly enough to betray that, however long the interval since that little dinner in Feversham's rooms, it was at all events still distinct in his recollections.
"No, but he was expected," said Durrance.
"No, not even expected," corrected Willoughby. "He was dining elsewhere. He sent the telegram, you remember."
"Ah, yes, a telegram came," said Durrance.
That dinner party certainly deserved consideration. Willoughby, Trench, Castleton—these three men were the cause of Harry Feversham's disgrace and disappearance. Durrance tried to recollect all the details of the evening; but he had been occupied himself on that occasion. He remembered leaning against the window above St. James's Park; he remembered hearing the tattoo from the parade-ground of Wellington Barracks—and a telegram had come.
Durrance made up another picture in his mind. Harry Feversham at the table reading and re-reading his telegram, Trench and Willoughby waiting silently, perhaps expectantly, and himself paying no heed, but staring out from the bright room into the quiet and cool of the park.
"Castleton was dining with a big man from the War Office that night," Durrance said, and a little movement at his side warned him that he was getting hot in his search. He sat for a while longer talking about the prospects of the Soudan, and then rose up from his chair.
"Well, I can rely on you, Willoughby, to help Feversham if ever you find him. Draw on me for money."
"I will do my best," said Willoughby. "You are going? I could have won a bet off you this afternoon."
"You said that you did not let your cigars go out. This one's stone cold."
"I forgot about it; I was thinking of Feversham. Good-bye."
He took a cab and drove away from the club door. Willoughby was glad to see the last of him, but he was fairly satisfied with his own exhibition of diplomacy. It would have been strange, after all, he thought, if he had not been able to hoodwink poor old Durrance; and he returned to the smoking-room and refreshed himself with a whiskey and potass.
Durrance, however, had not been hoodwinked. The last perplexing question had been answered for him that afternoon. He remembered now that no mention had been made at the dinner which could identify the sender of the telegram. Feversham had read it without a word, and without a word had crumpled it up and tossed it into the fire. But to-day Willoughby had told him that it had come from Castleton, and Castleton had been dining with a high official of the War Office. The particular act of cowardice which had brought the three white feathers to Ramelton was easy to discern. Almost the next day Feversham had told Durrance in the Row that he had resigned his commission, and Durrance knew that he had not resigned it when the telegram came. That telegram could have brought only one piece of news, that Feversham's regiment was ordered on active service. The more Durrance reflected, the more certain he felt that he had at last hit upon the truth. Nothing could be more natural than that Castleton should telegraph his good news in confidence to his friends. Durrance had the story now complete, or rather, the sequence of facts complete. For why Feversham should have been seized with panic, why he should have played the coward the moment after he was engaged to Ethne Eustace—at a time, in a word, when every manly quality he possessed should have been at its strongest and truest, remained for Durrance, and indeed, was always to remain, an inexplicable problem. But he put that question aside, classing it among the considerations which he had learnt to estimate as small and unimportant. The simple and true thing—the thing of real importance—emerged definite and clear: Harry Feversham was atoning for his one act of cowardice with a full and an overflowing measure of atonement.
"I shall astonish old Sutch," he thought, with a chuckle. He took the night mail into Devonshire the same evening, and reached his home before midday.