THE FOUR FEATHERS
MRS. ADAIR MAKES HER APOLOGY
Within the drawing-room at The Pool, Durrance said good-bye to Ethne. He had so arranged it that there should be little time for that leave-taking, and already the carriage stood at the steps of Guessens, with his luggage strapped upon the roof and his servant waiting at the door.
Ethne came out with him on to the terrace, where Mrs. Adair stood at the top of the flight of steps. Durrance held out his hand to her, but she turned to Ethne and said:—
"I want to speak to Colonel Durrance before he goes."
"Very well," said Ethne. "Then we will say good-bye here," she added to Durrance. "You will write from Wiesbaden? Soon, please!"
"The moment I arrive," answered Durrance. He descended the steps with Mrs. Adair, and left Ethne standing upon the terrace. The last scene of pretence had been acted out, the months of tension and surveillance had come to an end, and both were thankful for their release. Durrance showed that he was glad even in the briskness of his walk, as he crossed the lawn at Mrs. Adair's side. She, however, lagged, and when she spoke it was in a despondent voice.
"So you are going," she said. "In two days' time you will be at Wiesbaden and Ethne at Glenalla. We shall all be scattered. It will be lonely here."
She had had her way; she had separated Ethne and Durrance for a time at all events; she was no longer to be tortured by the sight of them and the sound of their voices; but somehow her interference had brought her little satisfaction. "The house will seem very empty after you are all gone," she said; and she turned at Durrance's side and walked down with him into the garden.
"We shall come back, no doubt," said Durrance, reassuringly.
Mrs. Adair looked about her garden. The flowers were gone, and the sunlight; clouds stretched across the sky overhead, the green of the grass underfoot was dull, the stream ran grey in the gap between the trees, and the leaves from the branches were blown russet and yellow about the lawns.
"How long shall you stay at Wiesbaden?" she asked.
"I can hardly tell. But as long as it's advisable," he answered.
"That tells me nothing at all. I suppose it was meant not to tell me anything."
Durrance did not answer her, and she resented his silence. She knew nothing whatever of his plans; she was unaware whether he meant to break his engagement with Ethne or to hold her to it, and curiosity consumed her. It might be a very long time before she saw him again, and all that long time she must remain tortured with doubts.
"You distrust me?" she said defiantly, and with a note of anger in her voice.
Durrance answered her quite gently:—
"Have I no reason to distrust you? Why did you tell me of Captain Willoughby's coming? Why did you interfere?"
"I thought you ought to know."
"But Ethne wished the secret kept. I am glad to know, very glad. But, after all, you told me, and you were Ethne's friend."
"Yours, too, I hope," Mrs. Adair answered, and she exclaimed: "How could I go on keeping silence? Don't you understand?"
Durrance might have understood, but he had never given much thought to Mrs. Adair, and she knew it. The knowledge rankled within her, and his simple "no" stung her beyond bearing.
"I spoke brutally, didn't I?" she said. "I told you the truth as brutally as I could. Doesn't that help you to understand?"
Again Durrance said "No," and the monosyllable exasperated her out of all prudence, and all at once she found herself speaking incoherently the things which she had thought. And once she had begun, she could not stop. She stood, as it were, outside of herself, and saw that her speech was madness; yet she went on with it.
"I told you the truth brutally on purpose. I was so stung because you would not see what was so visible had you only the mind to see. I wanted to hurt you. I am a bad, bad woman, I suppose. There were you and she in the room talking together in the darkness; there was I alone upon the terrace. It was the same again to-day. You and Ethne in the room, I alone upon the terrace. I wonder whether it will always be so. But you will not say—you will not say." She struck her hands together with a gesture of despair, but Durrance had no words for her. He walked silently along the garden path towards the stile, and he quickened his pace a little, so that Mrs. Adair had to walk fast to keep up with him. That quickening of the pace was a sort of answer, but Mrs. Adair was not deterred by it. Her madness had taken hold of her.
"I do not think I would have minded so much," she continued, "if Ethne had really cared for you; but she never cared more than as a friend cares, just a mere friend. And what's friendship worth?" she asked scornfully.
"Something, surely," said Durrance.
"It does not prevent Ethne from shrinking from her friend," cried Mrs. Adair. "She shrinks from you. Shall I tell you why? Because you are blind. She is afraid. While I—I will tell you the truth—I am glad. When the news first came from Wadi Halfa that you were blind, I was glad; when I saw you in Hill Street, I was glad; ever since, I have been glad—quite glad. Because I saw that she shrank. From the beginning she shrank, thinking how her life would be hampered and fettered," and the scorn of Mrs. Adair's voice increased, though her voice itself was sunk to a whisper. "I am not afraid," she said, and she repeated the words passionately again and again. "I am not afraid. I am not afraid."
To Durrance it seemed that in all his experience nothing so horrible had ever occurred as this outburst by the woman who was Ethne's friend, nothing so unforeseen.
"Ethne wrote to you at Wadi Halfa out of pity," she went on, "that was all. She wrote out of pity; and, having written, she was afraid of what she had done; and being afraid, she had not courage to tell you she was afraid. You would not have blamed her, if she had frankly admitted it; you would have remained her friend. But she had not the courage."
Durrance knew that there was another explanation of Ethne's hesitations and timidities. He knew, too, that the other explanation was the true one. But to-morrow he himself would be gone from the Salcombe estuary, and Ethne would be on her way to the Irish Channel and Donegal. It was not worth while to argue against Mrs. Adair's slanders. Besides, he was close upon the stile which separated the garden of The Pool from the fields. Once across that stile, he would be free of Mrs. Adair. He contented himself with saying quietly:—
"You are not just to Ethne."
At that simple utterance the madness of Mrs. Adair went from her. She recognised the futility of all that she had said, of her boastings of courage, of her detractions of Ethne. Her words might be true or not, they could achieve nothing. Durrance was always in the room with Ethne, never upon the terrace with Mrs. Adair. She became conscious of her degradation, and she fell to excuses.
"I am a bad woman, I suppose. But after all, I have not had the happiest of lives. Perhaps there is something to be said for me." It sounded pitiful and weak, even in her ears; but they had reached the stile, and Durrance had turned towards her. She saw that his face lost something of its sternness. He was standing quietly, prepared now to listen to what she might wish to say. He remembered that in the old days when he could see, he had always associated her with a dignity of carriage and a reticence of speech. It seemed hardly possible that it was the same woman who spoke to him now, and the violence of the contrast made him ready to believe that there must be perhaps something to be said on her behalf.
"Will you tell me?" he said gently.
"I was married almost straight from school. I was the merest girl. I knew nothing, and I was married to a man of whom I knew nothing. It was my mother's doing, and no doubt she thought that she was acting for the very best. She was securing for me a position of a kind, and comfort and release from any danger of poverty. I accepted what she said blindly, ignorantly. I could hardly have refused, indeed, for my mother was an imperious woman, and I was accustomed to obedience. I did as she told me and married dutifully the man whom she chose. The case is common enough, no doubt, but its frequency does not make it easier of endurance."
"But Mr. Adair?" said Durrance. "After all, I knew him. He was older, no doubt, than you, but he was kind. I think, too, he cared for you."
"Yes. He was kindness itself, and he cared for me. Both things are true. The knowledge that he did care for me was the one link, if you understand. At the beginning I was contented, I suppose. I had a house in town and another here. But it was dull," and she stretched out her arms. "Oh, how dull it was! Do you know the little back streets in a manufacturing town? Rows of small houses, side by side, with nothing to relieve them of their ugly regularity, each with the self-same windows, the self-same door, the self-same door-step. Overhead a drift of smoke, and every little green thing down to the plants in the window dirty and black. The sort of street whence any crazy religious charlatan who can promise a little colour to their grey lives can get as many votaries as he wants. Well, when I thought over my life, one of those little streets always came into my mind. There are women, heaps of them, no doubt, to whom the management of a big house, the season in London, the ordinary round of visits, are sufficient. I, worse luck, was not one of them. Dull! You, with your hundred thousand things to do, cannot conceive how oppressively dull my life was. And that was not all!" She hesitated, but she could not stop midway, and it was far too late for her to recover her ground. She went on to the end.
"I married, as I say, knowing nothing of the important things. I believed at the first that mine was just the allotted life of all women. But I began soon to have my doubts. I got to know that there was something more to be won out of existence than mere dulness; at least, that there was something more for others, though not for me. One could not help learning that. One passed a man and a woman riding together, and one chanced to look into the woman's face as one passed; or one saw, perhaps, the woman alone and talked with her for a little while, and from the happiness of her looks and voice one knew with absolute certainty that there was ever so much more. Only the chance of that ever so much more my mother had denied to me."
All the sternness had now gone from Durrance's face, and Mrs. Adair was speaking with a great simplicity. Of the violence which she had used before there was no longer any trace. She did not appeal for pity, she was not even excusing herself; she was just telling her story quietly and gently.
"And then you came," she continued. "I met you, and met you again. You went away upon your duties and you returned; and I learnt now, not that there was ever so much more, but just what that ever so much more was. But it was still, of course, denied to me. However, in spite of that I felt happier. I thought that I should be quite content to have you for a friend, to watch your progress, and to feel pride in it. But you see—Ethne came, too, and you turned to her. At once—oh, at once! If you had only been a little less quick to turn to her! In a very short while I was sad and sorry that you had ever come into my life."
"I knew nothing of this," said Durrance. "I never suspected. I am sorry."
"I took care you should not suspect," said Mrs. Adair. "But I tried to keep you; with all my wits I tried. No match-maker in the world ever worked so hard to bring two people together as I did to bring together Ethne and Mr. Feversham, and I succeeded."
The statement came upon Durrance with a shock. He leaned back against the stile and could have laughed. Here was the origin of the whole sad business. From what small beginnings it had grown! It is a trite reflection, but the personal application of it is apt to take away the breath. It was so with Durrance as he thought himself backwards into those days when he had walked on his own path, heedless of the people with whom he came in touch, never dreaming that they were at that moment influencing his life right up to his dying day. Feversham's disgrace and ruin, Ethne's years of unhappiness, the wearying pretences of the last few months, all had their origin years ago when Mrs. Adair, to keep Durrance to herself, threw Feversham and Ethne into each other's company.
"I succeeded," continued Mrs. Adair. "You told me that I had succeeded one morning in the Row. How glad I was! You did not notice it, I am sure. The next moment you took all my gladness from me by telling me you were starting for the Soudan. You were away three years. They were not happy years for me. You came back. My husband was dead, but Ethne was free. Ethne refused you, but you went blind and she claimed you. You can see what ups and downs have fallen to me. But these months here have been the worst."
"I am very sorry," said Durrance. Mrs. Adair was quite right, he thought. There was indeed something to be said on her behalf. The world had gone rather hardly with her. He was able to realise what she had suffered, since he was suffering in much the same way himself. It was quite intelligible to him why she had betrayed Ethne's secret that night upon the terrace, and he could not but be gentle with her.
"I am very sorry, Mrs. Adair," he repeated lamely. There was nothing more which he could find to say, and he held out his hand to her.
"Good-bye," she said, and Durrance climbed over the stile and crossed the fields to his house.
Mrs. Adair stood by that stile for a long while after he had gone. She had shot her bolt and hit no one but herself and the man for whom she cared.
She realised that distinctly. She looked forward a little, too, and she understood that if Durrance did not, after all, keep Ethne to her promise and marry her and go with her to her country, he would come back to Guessens. That reflection showed Mrs. Adair yet more clearly the folly of her outcry. If she had only kept silence, she would have had a very true and constant friend for her neighbour, and that would have been something. It would have been a good deal. But, since she had spoken, they could never meet without embarrassment, and, practise cordiality as they might, there would always remain in their minds the recollection of what she had said and he had listened to on the afternoon when he left for Wiesbaden.