THE FOUR FEATHERS
In the early summer of next year two old men sat reading their newspapers after breakfast upon the terrace of Broad Place. The elder of the two turned over a sheet.
"I see Osman Digna's back at Suakin," said he. "There's likely to be some fighting."
"Oh," said the other, "he will not do much harm." And he laid down his paper. The quiet English country-side vanished from before his eyes. He saw only the white city by the Red Sea shimmering in the heat, the brown plains about it with their tangle of halfa grass, and in the distance the hills towards Khor Gwob.
"A stuffy place Suakin, eh, Sutch?" said General Feversham.
"Appallingly stuffy. I heard of an officer who went down on parade at six o'clock of the morning there, sunstruck in the temples right through a regulation helmet. Yes, a town of dank heat! But I was glad to be there—very glad," he said with some feeling.
"Yes," said Feversham, briskly; "ibex, eh?"
"No," replied Sutch. "All the ibex had been shot off by the English garrison for miles round."
"No? Something to do, then. That's it?"
"Yes, that's it, Feversham. Something to do."
And both men busied themselves again over their papers. But in a little while a footman brought to each a small pile of letters. General Feversham ran over his envelopes with a quick eye, selected one letter, and gave a grunt of satisfaction. He took a pair of spectacles from a case and placed them upon his nose.
"From Ramelton?" asked Sutch, dropping his newspaper on to the terrace.
"From Ramelton," answered Feversham. "I'll light a cigar first."
He laid the letter down on the garden table which stood between his companion and himself, drew a cigar-case from his pocket, and in spite of the impatience of Lieutenant Sutch, proceeded to cut and light it with the utmost deliberation. The old man had become an epicure in this respect. A letter from Ramelton was a luxury to be enjoyed with all the accessories of comfort which could be obtained. He made himself comfortable in his chair, stretched out his legs, and smoked enough of his cigar to assure himself that it was drawing well. Then he took up his letter again and opened it.
"From him?" asked Sutch.
"No; from her."
General Feversham read the letter through slowly, while Lieutenant Sutch tried not to peep at it across the table. When the general had finished he turned back to the first page, and began it again.
"Any news?" said Sutch, with a casual air.
"They are very pleased with the house now that it's rebuilt."
"Yes. Harry's finished the sixth chapter of his history of the war."
"Good!" said Sutch. "You'll see, he'll do that well. He has imagination, he knows the ground, he was present while the war went on. Moreover, he was in the bazaars, he saw the under side of it."
"Yes. But you and I won't read it, Sutch," said Feversham. "No; I am wrong. You may, for you can give me a good many years."
He turned back to his letter and again Sutch asked:—
"Yes. They are coming here in a fortnight."
"Good," said Sutch. "I shall stay."
He took a turn along the terrace and came back. He saw Feversham sitting with the letter upon his knees and a frown of great perplexity upon his face.
"You know, Sutch, I never understood," he said. "Did you?"
"Yes, I think I did."
Sutch did not try to explain. It was as well, he thought, that Feversham never would understand. For he could not understand without much self-reproach.
"Do you ever see Durrance?" asked the general, suddenly.
"Yes, I see a good deal of Durrance. He is abroad just now."
Feversham turned towards his friend.
"He came to Broad Place when you went to Suakin, and talked to me for half an hour. He was Harry's best man. Well, that too I never understood. Did you?"
"Yes, I understood that as well."
"Oh!" said General Feversham. He asked for no explanations, but, as he had always done, he took the questions which he did not understand and put them aside out of his thoughts. But he did not turn to his other letters. He sat smoking his cigar, and looked out across the summer country and listened to the sounds rising distinctly from the fields. Sutch had read through all of his correspondence before Feversham spoke again.
"I have been thinking," he said. "Have you noticed the date of the month, Sutch?" and Sutch looked up quickly.
"Yes," said he, "this day next week will be the anniversary of our attack upon the Redan, and Harry's birthday."
"Exactly," replied Feversham. "Why shouldn't we start the Crimean nights again?"
Sutch jumped up from his chair.
"Splendid!" he cried. "Can we muster a tableful, do you think?"
"Let's see," said Feversham, and ringing a handbell upon the table, sent the servant for the Army List. Bending over that Army List the two veterans may be left.
But of one other figure in this story a final word must be said. That night, when the invitations had been sent out from Broad Place, and no longer a light gleamed from any window of the house, a man leaned over the rail of a steamer anchored at Port Said and listened to the song of the Arab coolies as they tramped up and down the planks with their coal baskets between the barges and the ship's side. The clamour of the streets of the town came across the water to his ears. He pictured to himself the flare of braziers upon the quays, the lighted port-holes, and dark funnels ahead and behind in the procession of the anchored ships. Attended by a servant, he had come back to the East again. Early the next morning the steamer moved through the canal, and towards the time of sunset passed out into the chills of the Gulf of Suez. Kassassin, Tel-el-Kebir, Tamai, Tamanieb, the attack upon McNeil's zareeba—Durrance lived again through the good years of his activity, the years of plenty. Within that country on the west the long preparations were going steadily forward which would one day roll up the Dervish Empire and crush it into dust. Upon the glacis of the ruined fort of Sinkat, Durrance had promised himself to take a hand in that great work, but the desert which he loved had smitten and cast him out. But at all events the boat steamed southwards into the Red Sea. Three nights more, and though he would not see it, the Southern Cross would lift slantwise into the sky.