THE FOUR FEATHERS
IN THE CHURCH AT GLENALLA
Ethne sat down in the corner of a pew next to the aisle, and Feversham took his stand beside her. It was very quiet and peaceful within that tiny church. The afternoon sun shone through the upper windows and made a golden haze about the roof. The natural murmurs of the summer floated pleasantly through the open door.
"I am glad that you remembered our drive and what we said," she continued. "It is rather important to me that you should remember. Because, although I have got you back, I am going to send you away from me again. You will be one of the absent friends whom I shall not lose because you are absent."
She spoke slowly, looking straight in front of her without faltering. It was a difficult speech for her to deliver, but she had thought over it night and day during this last fortnight, and the words were ready to her lips. At the first sight of Harry Feversham, recovered to her after so many years, so much suspense, so much suffering, it had seemed to her that she never would be able to speak them, however necessary it was that they should be spoken. But as they stood over against one another she had forced herself to remember that necessity until she actually recognised and felt it. Then she had gone back into the church and taken a seat, and gathered up her strength.
It would be easier for both of them, she thought, if she should give no sign of what so quick a separation cost her. He would know surely enough, and she wished him to know; she wished him to understand that not one moment of his six years, so far as she was concerned, had been spent in vain. But that could be understood without the signs of emotion. So she spoke her speech looking steadily straight forward and speaking in an even voice.
"I know that you will mind very much, just as I do. But there is no help for it," she resumed. "At all events you are at home again, with the right to be at home. It is a great comfort to me to know that. But there are other, much greater reasons from which we can both take comfort. Colonel Trench told me enough of your captivity to convince me that we both see with the same eyes. We both understand that this second parting, hard as it is, is still a very slight, small thing compared with the other, our first parting over at the house six years ago. I felt very lonely after that, as I shall not feel lonely now. There was a great barrier between us then separating us forever. We should never have met again here or afterwards. I am quite sure of that. But you have broken the barrier down by all your pain and bravery during these last years. I am no less sure of that. I am absolutely confident about it, and I believe you are too. So that although we shall not see one another here and as long as we live, the afterwards is quite sure for us both. And we can wait for that. You can. You have waited with so much strength all these years since we parted. And I can too, for I get strength from your victory."
She stopped, and for a while there was silence in that church. To Feversham her words were gracious as rain upon dry land. To hear her speak them uplifted him so that those six years of trial, of slinking into corners out of the sight of his fellows, of lonely endurance, of many heart-sinkings and much bodily pain, dwindled away into insignificance. They had indeed borne their fruit to him. For Ethne had spoken in a gentle voice just what his ears had so often longed to hear as he lay awake at night in the bazaar at Suakin, in the Nile villages, in the dim wide spaces of the desert, and what he had hardly dared to hope she ever would speak. He stood quite silently by her side, still hearing her voice though the voice had ceased. Long ago there were certain bitter words which she had spoken, and he had told Sutch, so closely had they clung and stung, that he believed in his dying moments he would hear them again and so go to his grave with her reproaches ringing in his ears. He remembered that prediction of his now and knew that it was false. The words he would hear would be those which she had just uttered.
For Ethne's proposal that they should separate he was not unprepared. He had heard already that she was engaged, and he did not argue against her wish. But he understood that she had more to say to him. And she had. But she was slow to speak it. This was the last time she was to see Harry Feversham; she meant resolutely to send him away. When once he had passed through that church door, through which the sunlight and the summer murmurs came, and his shadow gone from the threshold, she would never talk with him or set her eyes on him until her life was ended. So she deferred the moment of his going by silences and slow speech. It might be so very long before that end came. She had, she thought, the right to protract this one interview. She rather hoped that he would speak of his travels, his dangers; she was prepared to discuss at length with him even the politics of the Soudan. But he waited for her.
"I am going to be married," she said at length, "and immediately. I am to marry a friend of yours, Colonel Durrance."
There was hardly a pause before Feversham answered:—
"He has cared for you a long while. I was not aware of it until I went away, but, thinking over everything, I thought it likely, and in a very little time I became sure."
"He is blind."
"Blind!" exclaimed Feversham. "He, of all men, blind!"
"Exactly," said Ethne. "He—of all men. His blindness explains everything—why I marry him, why I send you away. It was after he went blind that I became engaged to him. It was before Captain Willoughby came to me with the first feather. It was between those two events. You see, after you went away one thought over things rather carefully. I used to lie awake and think, and I resolved that two men's lives should not be spoilt because of me."
"Mine was not," Feversham interrupted. "Please believe that."
"Partly it was," she returned, "I know very well. You would not own it for my sake, but it was. I was determined that a second should not be. And so when Colonel Durrance went blind—you know the man he was, you can understand what blindness meant to him, the loss of everything he cared for—"
"Yes," Ethne answered quietly, "except me. So I became engaged to him. But he has grown very quick—you cannot guess how quick. And he sees so very clearly. A hint tells him the whole hidden truth. At present he knows nothing of the four feathers."
"Are you sure?" suddenly exclaimed Feversham.
"Yes. Why?" asked Ethne, turning her face towards him for the first time since she had sat down.
"Lieutenant Sutch was at Suakin while I was at Omdurman. He knew that I was a prisoner there. He sent messages to me, he tried to organise my escape."
Ethne was startled.
"Oh," she said, "Colonel Durrance certainly knew that you were in Omdurman. He saw you in Wadi Halfa, and he heard that you had gone south into the desert. He was distressed about it; he asked a friend to get news of you, and the friend got news that you were in Omdurman. He told me so himself, and—yes, he told me that he would try to arrange for your escape. No doubt he has done that through Lieutenant Sutch. He has been at Wiesbaden with an oculist; he only returned a week ago. Otherwise he would have told me about it. Very likely he was the reason why Lieutenant Sutch was at Suakin, but he knows nothing of the four feathers. He only knows that our engagement was abruptly broken off; he believes that I have no longer any thought of you at all. But if you come back, if you and I saw anything of each other, however calmly we met, however indifferently we spoke, he would guess. He is so quick he would be sure to guess." She paused for a moment, and added in a whisper, "And he would guess right."
Feversham saw the blood flush her forehead and deepen the colour of her cheeks. He did not move from his position, he did not bend towards her, or even in voice give any sign which would make this leave-taking yet more difficult to carry through.
"Yes, I see," he said. "And he must not guess."
"No, he must not," returned Ethne. "I am so glad you see that too, Harry. The straight and simple thing is the only thing for us to do. He must never guess, for, as you said, he has nothing left but me."
"Is Durrance here?" asked Feversham.
"He is staying at the vicarage."
"Very well," he said. "It is only fair that I should tell you I had no thought that you would wait. I had no wish that you should; I had no right to such a wish. When you gave me that fourth feather in the little room at Ramelton, with the music coming faintly through the door, I understood your meaning. There was to be a complete, an irrevocable end. We were not to be the merest acquaintances. So I said nothing to you of the plan which came clear and definite into my mind at the very time when you gave me the feathers. You see, I might never have succeeded. I might have died trying to succeed. I might even perhaps have shirked the attempt. It would be time enough for me to speak if I came back. So I never formed any wish that you should wait."
"That was what Colonel Trench told me."
"I told him that too?"
"On your first night in the House of Stone."
"Well, it's just the truth. The most I hoped for—and I did hope for that every hour of every day—was that, if I did come home, you would take back your feather, and that we might—not renew our friendship here, but see something of one another afterwards."
"Yes," said Ethne. "Then there will be no parting."
Ethne spoke very simply, without even a sigh, but she looked at Harry Feversham as she spoke and smiled. The look and the smile told him what the cost of the separation would be to her. And, understanding what it meant now, he understood, with an infinitely greater completeness than he had ever reached in his lonely communings, what it must have meant six years ago when she was left with her pride stricken as sorely as her heart.
"What trouble you must have gone through!" he cried, and she turned and looked him over.
"Not I alone," she said gently. "I passed no nights in the House of Stone."
"But it was my fault. Do you remember what you said when the morning came through the blinds? 'It's not right that one should suffer so much pain.' It was not right."
"I had forgotten the words—oh, a long time since—until Colonel Trench reminded me. I should never have spoken them. When I did I was not thinking they would live so in your thoughts. I am sorry that I spoke them."
"Oh, they were just enough. I never blamed you for them," said Feversham, with a laugh. "I used to think that they would be the last words I should hear when I turned my face to the wall. But you have given me others to-day wherewith to replace them."
"Thank you," she said quietly.
There was nothing more to be said, and Feversham wondered why Ethne did not rise from her seat in the pew. It did not occur to him to talk of his travels or adventures. The occasion seemed too serious, too vital. They were together to decide the most solemn issue in their lives. Once the decision was made, as now it had been made, he felt that they could hardly talk on other topics. Ethne, however, still kept him at her side. Though she sat so calmly and still, though her face was quiet in its look of gravity, her heart ached with longing. Just for a little longer, she pleaded to herself. The sunlight was withdrawing from the walls of the church. She measured out a space upon the walls where it still glowed bright. When all that space was cold grey stone, she would send Harry Feversham away.
"I am glad that you escaped from Omdurman without the help of Lieutenant Sutch or Colonel Durrance. I wanted so much that everything should be done by you alone without anybody's help or interference," she said, and after she had spoken there followed a silence. Once or twice she looked towards the wall, and each time she saw the space of golden light narrowed, and knew that her minutes were running out. "You suffered horribly at Dongola," she said in a low voice. "Colonel Trench told me."
"What does it matter now?" Feversham answered. "That time seems rather far away to me."
"Had you anything of mine with you?"
"I had your white feather."
"But anything else? Any little thing which I had given you in the other days?"
"I had your photograph," she said. "I kept it."
Feversham suddenly leaned down towards her.
Ethne nodded her head.
"Yes. The moment I went upstairs that night I packed up your presents and addressed them to your rooms."
"Yes, I got them in London."
"But I put your photograph aside first of all to keep. I burnt all your letters after I had addressed the parcel and taken it down to the hall to be sent away. I had just finished burning your letters when I heard your step upon the gravel in the early morning underneath my windows. But I had already put your photograph aside. I have it now. I shall keep it and the feathers together." She added after a moment:—
"I rather wish that you had had something of mine with you all the time."
"I had no right to anything," said Feversham.
There was still a narrow slip of gold upon the grey space of stone.
"What will you do now?" she asked.
"I shall go home first and see my father. It will depend upon the way we meet."
"You will let Colonel Durrance know. I would like to hear about it."
"Yes, I will write to Durrance."
The slip of gold was gone, the clear light of a summer evening filled the church, a light without radiance or any colour.
"I shall not see you for a long while," said Ethne, and for the first time her voice broke in a sob. "I shall not have a letter from you again."
She leaned a little forward and bent her head, for the tears had gathered in her eyes. But she rose up bravely from her seat, and together they went out of the church side by side. She leaned towards him as they walked so that they touched.
Feversham untied his horse and mounted it. As his foot touched the stirrup Ethne caught her dog close to her.
"Good-bye," she said. She did not now even try to smile, she held out her hand to him. He took it and bent down from his saddle close to her. She kept her eyes steadily upon him though the tears brimmed in them.
"Good-bye," he said. He held her hand just for a little while, and then releasing it, rode down the hill. He rode for a hundred yards, stopped and looked back. Ethne had stopped, too, and with this space between them and their faces towards one another they remained. Ethne made no sign of recognition or farewell. She just stood and looked. Then she turned away and went up the village street towards her house alone and very slowly. Feversham watched her till she went in at the gate, but she became dim and blurred to his vision before even she had reached it. He was able to see, however, that she did not look back again.
He rode down the hill. The bad thing which he had done so long ago was not even by his six years of labour to be destroyed. It was still to live, its consequence was to be sorrow till the end of life for another than himself. That she took the sorrow bravely and without complaint, doing the straight and simple thing as her loyal nature bade her, did not diminish Harry Feversham's remorse. On the contrary it taught him yet more clearly that she least of all deserved unhappiness. The harm was irreparable. Other women might have forgotten, but not she. For Ethne was of those who neither lightly feel nor lightly forget, and if they love cannot love with half a heart. She would be alone now, he knew, in spite of her marriage, alone up to the very end and at the actual moment of death.