MoboReader> Literature > The Four Feathers

   Chapter 9 AT GLENALLA

The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 19162

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The farm-house stood a mile above the village, in a wild moorland country. The heather encroached upon its garden, and the bridle-path ended at its door. On three sides an amphitheatre of hills, which changed so instantly to the season that it seemed one could distinguish from day to day a new gradation in their colours, harboured it like a ship. No trees grew upon those hills, the granite cropped out amidst the moss and heather; but they had a friendly sheltering look, and Durrance came almost to believe that they put on their different draperies of emerald green, and purple, and russet brown consciously to delight the eyes of the girl they sheltered. The house faced the long slope of country to the inlet of the Lough. From the windows the eye reached down over the sparse thickets, the few tilled fields, the whitewashed cottages, to the tall woods upon the bank, and caught a glimpse of bright water and the gulls poising and dipping above it. Durrance rode up the track upon an afternoon and knew the house at once. For as he approached, the music of a violin floated towards him from the windows like a welcome. His hand was checked upon the reins, and a particular strong hope, about which he had allowed his fancies to play, rose up within him and suspended his breath.

He tied up his horse and entered in at the gate. A formless barrack without, the house within was a place of comfort. The room into which he was shown, with its brasses and its gleaming oak and its wide prospect, was bright as the afternoon itself. Durrance imagined it, too, with the blinds drawn upon a winter's night, and the fire red on the hearth, and the wind skirling about the hills and rapping on the panes.

Ethne greeted him without the least mark of surprise.

"I thought that you would come," she said, and a smile shone upon her face.

Durrance laughed suddenly as they shook hands, and Ethne wondered why. She followed the direction of his eyes towards the violin which lay upon a table at her side. It was pale in colour; there was a mark, too, close to the bridge, where a morsel of worm-eaten wood had been replaced.

"It is yours," she said. "You were in Egypt. I could not well send it back to you there."

"I have hoped lately, since I knew," returned Durrance, "that, nevertheless, you would accept it."

"You see I have," said Ethne, and looking straight into his eyes she added: "I accepted it some while ago. There was a time when I needed to be assured that I had sure friends. And a thing tangible helped. I was very glad to have it."

Durrance took the instrument from the table, handling it delicately, like a sacred vessel.

"You have played upon it? The Musoline overture, perhaps," said he.

"Do you remember that?" she returned, with a laugh. "Yes, I have played upon it, but only recently. For a long time I put my violin away. It talked to me too intimately of many things which I wished to forget," and these words, like the rest, she spoke without hesitation or any down-dropping of the eyes.

Durrance fetched up his luggage from Rathmullen the next day, and stayed at the farm for a week. But up to the last hour of his visit no further reference was made to Harry Feversham by either Ethne or Durrance, although they were thrown much into each other's company. For Dermod was even more broken than Mrs. Adair's description had led Durrance to expect. His speech was all dwindled to monosyllables; his frame was shrunken, and his clothes bagged upon his limbs; his very stature seemed lessened; even the anger was clouded from his eye; he had become a stay-at-home, dozing for the most part of the day by a fire, even in that July weather; his longest walk was to the little grey church which stood naked upon a mound some quarter of a mile away and within view of the windows, and even that walk taxed his strength. He was an old man fallen upon decrepitude, and almost out of recognition, so that his gestures and the rare tones of his voice struck upon Durrance as something painful, like the mimicry of a dead man. His collie dog seemed to age in company, and, to see them side by side, one might have said, in sympathy.

Durrance and Ethne were thus thrown much together. By day, in the wet weather or the fine, they tramped the hills, while she, with the colour glowing in her face, and her eyes most jealous and eager, showed him her country and exacted his admiration. In the evenings she would take her violin, and sitting as of old with an averted face, she would bid the strings speak of the heights and depths. Durrance sat watching the sweep of her arm, the absorption of her face, and counting up his chances. He had not brought with him to Glenalla Lieutenant Sutch's anticipations that he would succeed. The shadow of Harry Feversham might well separate them. For another thing, he knew very well that poverty would fall more lightly upon her than upon most women. He had indeed had proofs of that. Though the Lennon House was altogether ruined, and its lands gone from her, Ethne was still amongst her own people. They still looked eagerly for her visits; she was still the princess of that country-side. On the other hand, she took a frank pleasure in his company, and she led him to speak of his three years' service in the East. No detail was too insignificant for her inquiries, and while he spoke her eyes continually sounded him, and the smile upon her lips continually approved. Durrance did not understand what she was after. Possibly no one could have understood unless he was aware of what had passed between Harry Feversham and Ethne. Durrance wore the likeness of a man, and she was anxious to make sure that the spirit of a man informed it. He was a dark lantern to her. There might be a flame burning within, or there might be mere vacancy and darkness. She was pushing back the slide so that she might be sure.

She led him to speak of Egypt upon the last day of his visit. They were seated upon the hillside, on the edge of a stream which leaped from ledge to ledge down a miniature gorge of rock, and flowed over deep pools between the ledges very swiftly, a torrent of clear black water.

"I travelled once for four days amongst the mirages," he said,-"lagoons, still as a mirror and fringed with misty trees. You could almost walk your camel up to the knees in them, before the lagoon receded and the sand glared at you. And one cannot imagine that glare. Every stone within view dances and shakes like a heliograph; you can see-yes, actually see-the heat flow breast high across the desert swift as this stream here, only pellucid. So till the sun sets ahead of you level with your eyes! Imagine the nights which follow-nights of infinite silence, with a cool friendly wind blowing from horizon to horizon-and your bed spread for you under the great dome of stars. Oh," he cried, drawing a deep breath, "but that country grows on you. It's like the Southern Cross-four overrated stars when first you see them, but in a week you begin to look for them, and you miss them when you travel north again." He raised himself upon his elbow and turned suddenly towards her. "Do you know-I can only speak for myself-but I never feel alone in those empty spaces. On the contrary, I always feel very close to the things I care about, and to the few people I care about too."

Her eyes shone very brightly upon him, her lips parted in a smile. He moved nearer to her upon the grass, and sat with his feet gathered under him upon one side, and leaning upon his arm.

"I used to imagine you out there," he said. "You would have loved it-from the start before daybreak, in the dark, to the camp-fire at night. You would have been at home. I used to think so as I lay awake wondering how the world went with my friends."

"And you go back there?" she said.

Durrance did not immediately answer. The roar of the torrent throbbed about them. When he did speak, all the enthusiasm had gone from his voice. He spoke gazing into the stream.

"To Wadi Halfa. For two years. I suppose so."

Ethne kneeled upon the grass at his side.

"I shall miss you," she said.

She was kneeling just behind him as he sat on the ground, and again there fell a silence between them.

"Of what are you thinking?"

"That you need not miss me," he said, and he was aware that she drew back and sank down upon her heels. "My appointment at Halfa-I might shorten its term. I might perhaps avoid it altogether. I have still half my furlough."

She did not answer nor did she change her attitude. She remained very still, and Durrance was alarmed, and all his hopes sank. For a stillness of attitude he knew to be with her as definite an expression of distress as a cry of pain with another woman. He turned about towards her. Her head was bent, but she raised it as he turned, and though her lips smiled, there was a look of great trouble in her eyes. Durrance was a man like another. His first thought was whether there was not some obstacle which would hinder her from compliance, even though she herself were willing.

"There is your father," he said.

"Yes," she answered, "there is my father too. I could not leave him."

"Nor need you," said he, quickly. "That difficulty can be surmounted. To tell the truth I was not thinking of your father at the moment."

"Nor was I," said she.

Durrance turned away and sat for a little while staring down the rocks into a wrinkled pool of water just beneath. It was after all the shadow of Feversham which stretched between himself and her.

"I know, of

course," he said, "that you would never feel trouble, as so many do, with half your heart. You would neither easily care nor lightly forget."

"I remember enough," she returned in a low voice, "to make your words rather a pain to me. Some day perhaps I may bring myself to tell everything which happened at that ball three years ago, and then you will be better able to understand why I am a little distressed. All that I can tell you now is this: I have a great fear that I was to some degree the cause of another man's ruin. I do not mean that I was to blame for it. But if I had not been known to him, his career might perhaps never have come to so abrupt an end. I am not sure, but I am afraid. I asked whether it was so, and I was told 'no,' but I think very likely that generosity dictated that answer. And the fear stays. I am much distressed by it. I lie awake with it at night. And then you come whom I greatly value, and you say quietly, 'Will you please spoil my career too?'" And she struck one hand sharply into the other and cried, "But that I will not do."

And again he answered:-

"There is no need that you should. Wadi Halfa is not the only place where a soldier can find work to his hand."

His voice had taken a new hopefulness. For he had listened intently to the words which she had spoken, and he had construed them by the dictionary of his desires. She had not said that friendship bounded all her thoughts of him. Therefore he need not believe it. Women were given to a hinting modesty of speech, at all events the best of them. A man might read a little more emphasis into their tones, and underline their words and still be short of their meaning, as he argued. A subtle delicacy graced them in nature. Durrance was near to Benedick's mood. "One whom I value"; "I shall miss you"; there might be a double meaning in the phrases. When she said that she needed to be assured that she had sure friends, did she not mean that she needed their companionship? But the argument, had he been acute enough to see it, proved how deep he was sunk in error. For what this girl spoke, she habitually meant, and she habitually meant no more. Moreover, upon this occasion she had particularly weighed her words.

"No doubt," she said, "a soldier can. But can this soldier find work so suitable? Listen, please, till I have done. I was so very glad to hear all that you have told me about your work and your journeys. I was still more glad because of the satisfaction with which you told it. For it seemed to me, as I listened and as I watched, that you had found the one true straight channel along which your life could run swift and smoothly and unharassed. And so few do that-so very few!" And she wrung her hands and cried, "And now you spoil it all."

Durrance suddenly faced her. He ceased from argument; he cried in a voice of passion:-

"I am for you, Ethne! There's the true straight channel, and upon my word I believe you are for me. I thought-I admit it-at one time I would spend my life out there in the East, and the thought contented me. But I had schooled myself into contentment, for I believed you married." Ethne ever so slightly flinched, and he himself recognised that he had spoken in a voice overloud, so that it had something almost of brutality.

"Do I hurt you?" he continued. "I am sorry. But let me speak the whole truth out, I cannot afford reticence, I want you to know the first and last of it. I say now that I love you. Yes, but I could have said it with equal truth five years ago. It is five years since your father arrested me at the ferry down there on Lough Swilly, because I wished to press on to Letterkenny and not delay a night by stopping with a stranger. Five years since I first saw you, first heard the language of your violin. I remember how you sat with your back towards me. The light shone on your hair; I could just see your eyelashes and the colour of your cheeks. I remember the sweep of your arm.... My dear, you are for me; I am for you."

But she drew back from his outstretched hands.

"No," she said very gently, but with a decision he could not mistake. She saw more clearly into his mind than he did himself. The restlessness of the born traveller, the craving for the large and lonely spaces in the outlandish corners of the world, the incurable intermittent fever to be moving, ever moving amongst strange peoples and under strange skies-these were deep-rooted qualities of the man. Passion might obscure them for a while, but they would make their appeal in the end, and the appeal would torture. The home would become a prison. Desires would so clash within him, there could be no happiness. That was the man. For herself, she looked down the slope of the hill across the brown country. Away on the right waved the woods about Ramelton, at her feet flashed a strip of the Lough; and this was her country; she was its child and the sister of its people.

"No," she repeated, as she rose to her feet. Durrance rose with her. He was still not so much disheartened as conscious of a blunder. He had put his case badly; he should never have given her the opportunity to think that marriage would be an interruption of his career.

"We will say good-bye here," she said, "in the open. We shall be none the less good friends because three thousand miles hinder us from shaking hands."

They shook hands as she spoke.

"I shall be in England again in a year's time," said Durrance. "May I come back?"

Ethne's eyes and her smile consented.

"I should be sorry to lose you altogether," she said, "although even if I did not see you, I should know that I had not lost your friendship." She added, "I should also be glad to hear news of you and what you are doing, if ever you have the time to spare."

"I may write?" he exclaimed eagerly.

"Yes," she answered, and his eagerness made her linger a little doubtfully upon the word. "That is, if you think it fair. I mean, it might be best for you, perhaps, to get rid of me entirely from your thoughts;" and Durrance laughed and without any bitterness, so that in a moment Ethne found herself laughing too, though at what she laughed she would have discovered it difficult to explain. "Very well, write to me then." And she added drily, "But it will be about-other things."

And again Durrance read into her words the interpretation he desired; and again she meant just what she said, and not a word more.

She stood where he left her, a tall, strong-limbed figure of womanhood, until he was gone out of sight. Then she climbed down to the house, and going into her room took one of her violins from its case. But it was the violin which Durrance had given to her, and before she had touched the strings with her bow she recognised it and put it suddenly away from her in its case. She snapped the case to. For a few moments she sat motionless in her chair, then she quickly crossed the room, and, taking her keys, unlocked a drawer. At the bottom of the drawer there lay hidden a photograph, and at this she looked for a long while and very wistfully.

Durrance meanwhile walked down to the trap which was waiting for him at the gates of the house, and saw that Dermod Eustace stood in the road with his hat upon his head.

"I will walk a few yards with you, Colonel Durrance," said Dermod. "I have a word for your ear."

Durrance suited his stride to the old man's faltering step, and they walked behind the dog-cart, and in silence. It was not the mere personal disappointment which weighed upon Durrance's spirit. But he could not see with Ethne's eyes, and as his gaze took in that quiet corner of Donegal, he was filled with a great sadness lest all her life should be passed in this seclusion, her grave dug in the end under the wall of the tiny church, and her memory linger only in a few white cottages scattered over the moorland, and for a very little while. He was recalled by the pressure of Dermod's hand upon his elbow. There was a gleam of inquiry in the old man's faded eyes, but it seemed that speech itself was a difficulty.

"You have news for me?" he asked, after some hesitation. "News of Harry Feversham? I thought that I would ask you before you went away."

"None," said Durrance.

"I am sorry," replied Dermod, wistfully, "though I have no reason for sorrow. He struck us a cruel blow, Colonel Durrance.-I should have nothing but curses for him in my mouth and my heart. A black-throated coward my reason calls him, and yet I would be very glad to hear how the world goes with him. You were his friend. But you do not know?"

It was actually of Harry Feversham that Dermod Eustace was speaking, and Durrance, as he remarked the old man's wistfulness of voice and face, was seized with a certain remorse that he had allowed Ethne so to thrust his friend out of his thoughts. He speculated upon the mystery of Harry Feversham's disappearance at times as he sat in the evening upon his verandah above the Nile at Wadi Halfa, piecing together the few hints which he had gathered. "A black-throated coward," Dermod had called Harry Feversham, and Ethne had said enough to assure him that something graver than any dispute, something which had destroyed all her faith in the man, had put an end to their betrothal. But he could not conjecture at the particular cause, and the only consequence of his perplexed imaginings was the growth of a very real anger within him against the man who had been his friend. So the winter passed, and summer came to the Soudan and the month of May.

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