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The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 17365

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Ethne stood at the drawing-room window of the house in Hill Street. Mrs. Adair sat in front of her tea-table. Both women were waiting, and they were both listening for some particular sound to rise up from the street and penetrate into the room. The window stood open that they might hear it the more quickly. It was half-past five in the afternoon. June had come round again with the exhilaration of its sunlight, and London had sparkled into a city of pleasure and green trees. In the houses opposite, the windows were gay with flowers; and in the street below, the carriages rolled easily towards the Park. A jingle of bells rose upwards suddenly and grew loud. Mrs. Adair raised her head quickly.

"That's a cab," she said.


Ethne leaned forward and looked down. "But it's not stopping here;" and the jingle grew fainter and died away.

Mrs. Adair looked at the clock.

"Colonel Durrance is late," she said, and she turned curiously towards Ethne. It seemed to her that Ethne had spoken her "yes" with much more of suspense than eagerness; her attitude as she leaned forward at the window had been almost one of apprehension; and though Mrs. Adair was not quite sure, she fancied that she detected relief when the cab passed by the house and did not stop. "I wonder why you didn't go to the station and meet Colonel Durrance?" she asked slowly.

The answer came promptly enough.

"He might have thought that I had come because I looked upon him as rather helpless, and I don't wish him to think that. He has his servant with him." Ethne looked again out of the window, and once or twice she made a movement as if she was about to speak and then thought silence the better part. Finally, however, she made up her mind.

"You remember the telegram I showed to you?"

"From Lieutenant Calder, saying that Colonel Durrance had gone blind?"

"Yes. I want you to promise never to mention it. I don't want him to know that I ever received it."

Mrs. Adair was puzzled, and she hated to be puzzled. She had been shown the telegram, but she had not been told that Ethne had written to Durrance, pledging herself to him immediately upon its receipt. Ethne, when she showed the telegram, had merely said, "I am engaged to him." Mrs. Adair at once believed that the engagement had been of some standing, and she had been allowed to continue in that belief.

"You will promise?" Ethne insisted.

"Certainly, my dear, if you like," returned Mrs. Adair, with an ungracious shrug of the shoulders. "But there is a reason, I suppose. I don't understand why you exact the promise."

"Two lives must not be spoilt because of me."

There was some ground for Mrs. Adair's suspicion that Ethne expected the blind man to whom she was betrothed, with apprehension. It is true that she was a little afraid. Just twelve months had passed since, in this very room, on just such a sunlit afternoon, Ethne had bidden Durrance try to forget her, and each letter which she had since received had shown that, whether he tried or not, he had not forgotten. Even that last one received three weeks ago, the note scrawled in the handwriting of a child, from Wadi Halfa, with the large unsteady words straggling unevenly across the page, and the letters running into one another wherein he had told his calamity and renounced his suit-even that proved, and perhaps more surely than its hopeful forerunners-that he had not forgotten. As she waited at the window she understood very clearly that it was she herself who must buckle to the hard work of forgetting. Or if that was impossible, she must be careful always that by no word let slip in a forgetful moment she betrayed that she had not forgotten.

"No," she said, "two lives shall not be spoilt because of me," and she turned towards Mrs. Adair.

"Are you quite sure, Ethne," said Mrs. Adair, "that the two lives will not be more surely spoilt by this way of yours-the way of marriage? Don't you think that you will come to feel Colonel Durrance, in spite of your will, something of a hindrance and a drag? Isn't it possible that he may come to feel that too? I wonder. I very much wonder."

"No," said Ethne, decisively. "I shall not feel it, and he must not."

The two lives, according to Mrs. Adair, were not the lives of Durrance and Harry Feversham, but of Durrance and Ethne herself. There she was wrong; but Ethne did not dispute the point, she was indeed rather glad that her friend was wrong, and she allowed her to continue in her wrong belief.

Ethne resumed her watch at the window, foreseeing her life, planning it out so that never might she be caught off her guard. The task would be difficult, no doubt, and it was no wonder that in these minutes while she waited fear grew upon her lest she should fail. But the end was well worth the effort, and she set her eyes upon that. Durrance had lost everything which made life to him worth living the moment he went blind-everything, except one thing. "What should I do if I were crippled?" he had said to Harry Feversham on the morning when for the last time they had ridden together in the Row. "A clever man might put up with it. But what should I do if I had to sit in a chair all my days?" Ethne had not heard the words, but she understood the man well enough without them. He was by birth the inheritor of the other places, and he had lost his heritage. The things which delighted him, the long journeys, the faces of strange countries, the camp-fire, a mere spark of red light amidst black and empty silence, the hours of sleep in the open under bright stars, the cool night wind of the desert, and the work of government-all these things he had lost. Only one thing remained to him-herself, and only, as she knew very well, herself so long as he could believe she wanted him. And while she was still occupied with her resolve, the cab for which she waited stopped unnoticed at the door. It was not until Durrance's servant had actually rung the bell that her attention was again attracted to the street.

"He has come!" she said with a start.

Durrance, it was true, was not particularly acute; he had never been inquisitive; he took his friends as he found them; he put them under no microscope. It would have been easy at any time, Ethne reflected, to quiet his suspicions, should he have ever come to entertain any. But now it would be easier than ever. There was no reason for apprehension. Thus she argued, but in spite of the argument she rather nerved herself to an encounter than went forward to welcome her betrothed.

Mrs. Adair slipped out of the room, so that Ethne was alone when Durrance entered at the door. She did not move immediately; she retained her attitude and position, expecting that the change in him would for the first moment shock her. But she was surprised; for the particular changes which she had expected were noticeable only through their absence. His face was worn, no doubt, his hair had gone grey, but there was no air of helplessness or uncertainty, and it was that which for his own sake she most dreaded. He walked forward into the room as though his eyes saw; his memory seemed to tell him exactly where each piece of the furniture stood. The most that he did was once or twice to put out a hand where he expected a chair.

Ethne drew silently back into the window rather at a loss with what words to greet him, and immediately he smiled and came straight towards her.

"Ethne," he said.

"It isn't true, then," she exclaimed. "You have recovered." The words were forced from her by the readiness of his movement.

"It is quite true, and I have not recovered," he answered. "But you moved at the window and so I knew that you were there."

"How did you know? I made no noise."

"No, but the window's open. The noise in the street became suddenly louder, so I knew that some one in front of the window had moved aside. I guessed that it was you."

Their words were thus not perhaps the most customary greeting between a couple meeting on the first occasion after they have become engaged, but they served to hinder embarrassment. Ethne shrank from any perfunctory expression of regret, knowing that there was no need for it, and Durrance had no wish to hear it. For there were many things which these two understood each other well enough to take as said. They did no more than shake hands when they had spoken, and Ethne moved back into the room.

"I will give you some tea," she said, "then we can talk."

"Yes, we must have a talk, mustn't we?" Durrance answered seriously. He threw off his serious air, however, and chatted with good humour about the details of his journey h

ome. He even found a subject of amusement in his sense of helplessness during the first days of his blindness; and Ethne's apprehensions rapidly diminished. They had indeed almost vanished from her mind when something in his attitude suddenly brought them back.

"I wrote to you from Wadi Halfa," he said. "I don't know whether you could read the letter."

"Quite well," said Ethne.

"I got a friend of mine to hold the paper and tell me when I was writing on it or merely on the blotting-pad," he continued with a laugh. "Calder-of the Sappers-but you don't know him."

He shot the name out rather quickly, and it came upon Ethne with a shock that he had set a trap to catch her. The curious stillness of his face seemed to tell her that he was listening with an extreme intentness for some start, perhaps even a checked exclamation, which would betray that she knew something of Calder of the Sappers. Did he suspect, she asked herself? Did he know of the telegram? Did he guess that her letter was sent out of pity? She looked into Durrance's face, and it told her nothing except that it was very alert. In the old days, a year ago, the expression of his eyes would have answered her quite certainly, however close he held his tongue.

"I could read the letter without difficulty," she answered gently. "It was the letter you would have written. But I had written to you before, and of course your bad news could make no difference. I take back no word of what I wrote."

Durrance sat with his hands upon his knees, leaning forward a little. Again Ethne was at a loss. She could not tell from his manner or his face whether he accepted or questioned her answer; and again she realised that a year ago while he had his sight she would have been in no doubt.

"Yes, I know you. You would take nothing back," he said at length. "But there is my point of view."

Ethne looked at him with apprehension.

"Yes?" she replied, and she strove to speak with unconcern. "Will you tell me it?"

Durrance assented, and began in the deliberate voice of a man who has thought out his subject, knows it by heart, and has decided, moreover, the order of words by which it will be most lucidly developed.

"I know what blindness means to all men-a growing, narrowing egotism unless one is perpetually on one's guard. And will one be perpetually on one's guard? Blindness means that to all men," he repeated emphatically. "But it must mean more to me, who am deprived of every occupation. If I were a writer, I could still dictate. If I were a business man, I could conduct my business. But I am a soldier, and not a clever soldier. Jealousy, a continual and irritable curiosity-there is no Paul Pry like your blind man-a querulous claim upon your attention-these are my special dangers." And Ethne laughed gently in contradiction of his argument.

"Well, perhaps one may hold them off," he acknowledged, "but they are to be considered. I have considered them. I am not speaking to you without thought. I have pondered and puzzled over the whole matter night after night since I got your letter, wondering what I should do. You know how gladly, with what gratitude, I would have answered you, 'Yes, let the marriage go on,' if I dared. If I dared! But I think-don't you?-that a great trouble rather clears one's wits. I used to lie awake at Cairo and think; and the unimportant trivial considerations gradually dropped away; and a few straight and simple truths stood out rather vividly. One felt that one had to cling to them and with all one's might, because nothing else was left."

"Yes, that I do understand," Ethne replied in a low voice. She had gone through just such an experience herself. It might have been herself, and not Durrance, who was speaking. She looked up at him, and for the first time began to understand that after all she and he might have much in common. She repeated over to herself with an even firmer determination, "Two lives shall not be spoilt because of me."

"Well?" she asked.

"Well, here's one of the very straight and simple truths. Marriage between a man crippled like myself, whose life is done, and a woman like you, active and young, whose life is in its flower, would be quite wrong unless each brought to it much more than friendship. It would be quite wrong if it implied a sacrifice for you."

"It implies no sacrifice," she answered firmly.

Durrance nodded. It was evident that the answer contented him, and Ethne felt that it was the intonation to which he listened rather than the words. His very attitude of concentration showed her that. She began to wonder whether it would be so easy after all to quiet his suspicions now that he was blind; she began to realise that it might possibly on that very account be all the more difficult.

"Then do you bring more than friendship?" he asked suddenly. "You will be very honest, I know. Tell me."

Ethne was in a quandary. She knew that she must answer, and at once and without ambiguity. In addition, she must answer honestly.

"There is nothing," she replied, and as firmly as before, "nothing in the world which I wish for so earnestly as that you and I should marry."

It was an honest wish, and it was honestly spoken. She knew nothing of the conversation which had passed between Harry Feversham and Lieutenant Sutch in the grill-room of the Criterion Restaurant; she knew nothing of Harry's plans; she had not heard of the Gordon letters recovered from the mud-wall of a ruined house in the city of the Dervishes on the Nile bank. Harry Feversham had, so far as she knew and meant, gone forever completely out of her life. Therefore her wish was an honest one. But it was not an exact answer to Durrance's question, and she hoped that again he would listen to the intonation, rather than to the words. However, he seemed content with it.

"Thank you, Ethne," he said, and he took her hand and shook it. His face smiled at her. He asked no other questions. There was not a doubt, she thought; his suspicions were quieted; he was quite content. And upon that Mrs. Adair came with discretion into the room.

She had the tact to greet Durrance as one who suffered under no disadvantage, and she spoke as though she had seen him only the week before.

"I suppose Ethne has told you of our plan," she said, as she took her tea from her friend's hand.

"No, not yet," Ethne answered.

"What plan?" asked Durrance.

"It is all arranged," said Mrs. Adair. "You will want to go home to Guessens in Devonshire. I am your neighbour-a couple of fields separate us, that's all. So Ethne will stay with me during the interval before you are married."

"That's very kind of you, Mrs. Adair," Durrance exclaimed; "because, of course, there will be an interval."

"A short one, no doubt," said Mrs. Adair.

"Well, it's this way. If there's a chance that I may recover my sight, it would be better that I should seize it at once. Time means a good deal in these cases."

"Then there is a chance?" cried Ethne.

"I am going to see a specialist here to-morrow," Durrance answered. "And, of course, there's the oculist at Wiesbaden. But it may not be necessary to go so far. I expect that I shall be able to stay at Guessens and come up to London when it is necessary. Thank you very much, Mrs. Adair. It is a good plan." And he added slowly, "From my point of view there could be no better."

Ethne watched Durrance drive away with his servant to his old rooms in St. James's Street, and stood by the window after he had gone, in much the same attitude and absorption as that which had characterised her before he had come. Outside in the street the carriages were now coming back from the park, and there was just one other change. Ethne's apprehensions had taken a more definite shape.

She believed that suspicion was quieted in Durrance for to-day, at all events. She had not heard his conversation with Calder in Cairo. She did not know that he believed there was no cure which could restore him to sight. She had no remotest notion that the possibility of a remedy might be a mere excuse. But none the less she was uneasy. Durrance had grown more acute. Not only his senses had been sharpened,-that, indeed, was to be expected,-but trouble and thought had sharpened his mind as well. It had become more penetrating. She felt that she was entering upon an encounter of wits, and she had a fear lest she should be worsted. "Two lives shall not be spoilt because of me," she repeated, but it was a prayer now, rather than a resolve. For one thing she recognised quite surely: Durrance saw ever so much more clearly now that he was blind.

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