THE FOUR FEATHERS
Habit assisted them; the irresponsible chatter of the ballroom sprang automatically to their lips; the appearance of enjoyment never failed from off their faces; so that no one at Lennon House that night suspected that any swift cause of severance had come between them. Harry Feversham watched Ethne laugh and talk as though she had never a care, and was perpetually surprised, taking no thought that he wore the like mask of gaiety himself. When she swung past him the light rhythm of her feet almost persuaded him that her heart was in the dance. It seemed that she could even command the colour upon her cheeks. Thus they both wore brave faces as she had bidden. They even danced together. But all the while Ethne was conscious that she was holding up a great load of pain and humiliation which would presently crush her, and Feversham felt those four feathers burning at his breast. It was wonderful to him that the whole company did not know of them. He never approached a partner without the notion that she would turn upon him with the contemptuous name which was his upon her tongue. Yet he felt no fear on that account. He would not indeed have cared had it happened, had the word been spoken. He had lost Ethne. He watched her and looked in vain amongst her guests, as indeed he surely knew he would, for a fit comparison. There were women, pretty, graceful, even beautiful, but Ethne stood apart by the particular character of her beauty. The broad forehead, the perfect curve of the eyebrows, the great steady, clear, grey eyes, the full red lips which could dimple into tenderness and shut level with resolution, and the royal grace of her carriage, marked her out to Feversham's thinking, and would do so in any company. He watched her in a despairing amazement that he had ever had a chance of owning her.
Only once did her endurance fail, and then only for a second. She was dancing with Feversham, and as she looked toward the windows she saw that the daylight was beginning to show very pale and cold upon the other side of the blinds.
"Look!" she said, and Feversham suddenly felt all her weight upon his arms. Her face lost its colour and grew tired and very grey. Her eyes shut tightly and then opened again. He thought that she would faint. "The morning at last!" she exclaimed, and then in a voice as weary as her face, "I wonder whether it is right that one should suffer so much pain."
"Hush!" whispered Feversham. "Courage! A few minutes more—only a very few!" He stopped and stood in front of her until her strength returned.
"Thank you!" she said gratefully, and the bright wheel of the dance caught them in its spokes again.
It was strange that he should be exhorting her to courage, she thanking him for help; but the irony of this queer momentary reversal of their position occurred to neither of them. Ethne was too tried by the strain of those last hours, and Feversham had learned from that one failure of her endurance, from the drawn aspect of her face and the depths of pain in her eyes, how deeply he had wounded her. He no longer said, "I have lost her," he no longer thought of his loss at all. He heard her words, "I wonder whether it is right that one should suffer so much pain." He felt that they would go ringing down the world with him, persistent in his ears, spoken upon the very accent of her voice. He was sure that he would hear them at the end above the voices of any who should stand about him when he died, and hear in them his condemnation. For it was not right.
The ball finished shortly afterwards. The last carriage drove away, and those who were staying in the house sought the smoking-room or went upstairs to bed according to their sex. Feversham, however, lingered in the hall with Ethne. She understood why.
"There is no need," she said, standing with her back to him as she lighted a candle, "I have told my father. I told him everything."
Feversham bowed his head in acquiescence.
"Still, I must wait and see him," he said.
Ethne did not object, but she turned and looked at him quickly with her brows drawn in a frown of perplexity. To wait for her father under such circumstances seemed to argue a certain courage. Indeed, she herself felt some apprehension as she heard the door of the study open and Dermod's footsteps on the floor. Dermod walked straight up to Harry Feversham, looking for once in a way what he was, a very old man, and stood there staring into Feversham's face with a muddled and bewildered expression. Twice he opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. In the end he turned to the table and lit his candle and Harry Feversham's. Then he turned back toward Feversham, and rather quickly, so that Ethne took a step forward as if to get between them; but he did nothing more than stare at Feversham again and for a long time. Finally, he took up his candle.
"Well—" he said, and stopped. He snuffed the wick with the scissors and began again. "Well—" he said, and stopped again. Apparently his candle had not helped him to any suitable expressions. He stared into the flame now instead of into Feversham's face, and for an equal length of time. He could think of nothing whatever to say, and yet he was conscious that something must be said. In the end he said lamely:—
"If you want any whiskey, stamp twice on the floor with your foot. The servants understand."
Thereupon he walked heavily up the stairs. The old man's forbearance was perhaps not the least part of Harry Feversham's punishment.
It was broad daylight when Ethne was at last alone within her room. She drew up the blinds and opened the windows wide. The cool fresh air of the morning was as a draught of spring-water to her. She looked out upon a world as yet unillumined by colours and found therein an image of her days to come. The dark, tall trees looked black; the winding paths, a singular dead white; the very lawns were dull and grey, though the dew lay upon them like a network of frost. It was a noisy world, however, for all its aspect of quiet. For the blackbirds were calling from the branches and the grass, and down beneath the overhanging trees the Lennon flowed in music between its banks. Ethne drew back from the window. She had much to do that morning before she slept. For she designed with her natural thoroughness to make an end at once of all her associations with Harry Feversham. She wished that from the moment when next she waked she might never come across a single thing which could recall him to her memory. And with a sort of stubborn persistence she went about the work.
But she changed her mind. In the very process of collecting together the gifts which he had made to her she changed her mind. For each gift that she looked upon had its history, and the days before this miserable night had darkened on her happiness came one by one slowly back to her as she looked. She determined to keep one thing which had belonged to Harry Feversham,—a small thing, a thing of no value. At first she chose a penknife, which he had once lent to her and she had forgotten to return. But the next instant she dropped it and rather hurriedly. For she was after all an Irish girl, and though she did not believe in superstitions, where superstitions were concerned she preferred to be on the safe side. She selected his photograph in the end and locked it away in a drawer.
She gathered the rest of his presents together, packed them carefully in a box, fastened the box, addressed it and carried it down to the hall, that the servants might despatch it in the morning. Then coming back to her room she took his letters, made a little pile of them on the hearth and set them alight. They took some while to consume, but she waited, sitting upright in her arm-chair while the flame crept from sheet to sheet, discolouring the paper, blackening the writing like a stream of ink, and leaving in the end only flakes of ashes like feathers, and white flakes like white feathers. The last sparks were barely extinguished when she heard a cautious step on the gravel beneath her window.
It was broad daylight, but her candle was still burning on the table at her side, and with a quick instinctive movement she reached out her arm and put the light out. Then she sat very still and rigid, listening. For a while she heard only the blackbirds calling from the trees in the garden and the throbbing music of the river. Afterward she heard the footsteps again, cautiously retreating; and in spite of her will, in spite of her formal disposal of the letters and the presents, she was mastered all at once, not by pain or humiliation, but by an overpowering sense of loneliness. She seemed to be seated high on an empty world of ruins. She rose quickly from her chair, and her eyes fell upon a violin case. With a sigh of relief she opened it, and a little while after one or two of the guests who were sleeping in the house chanced to wake up and heard floating down the corridors the music of a violin played very lovingly and low. Ethne was not aware that the violin which she held was the Guarnerius violin which Durrance had sent to her. She only understood that she had a companion to share her loneliness.