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The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 17981

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

During the months of July and August Ethne's apprehensions grew, and once at all events they found expression on her lips.

"I am afraid," she said, one morning, as she stood in the sunlight at an open window of Mrs. Adair's house upon a creek of the Salcombe estuary. In the room behind her Mrs. Adair smiled quietly.

"Of what? That some accident happened to Colonel Durrance yesterday in London?"

"No," Ethne answered slowly, "not of that. For he is at this moment crossing the lawn towards us."

Again Mrs. Adair smiled, but she did not raise her head from the book which she was reading, so that it might have been some passage in the book which so amused and pleased her.

"I thought so," she said, but in so low a voice that the words barely reached Ethne's ears. They did not penetrate to her mind, for as she looked across the stone-flagged terrace and down the broad shallow flight of steps to the lawn, she asked abruptly:-

"Do you think he has any hope whatever that he will recover his sight?"

The question had not occurred to Mrs. Adair before, and she gave to it now no importance in her thoughts.

"Would he travel up to town so often to see his oculist if he had none?" she asked in reply. "Of course he hopes."

"I am afraid," said Ethne, and she turned with a sudden movement towards her friend. "Haven't you noticed how quick he has grown and is growing? Quick to interpret your silences, to infer what you do not say from what you do, to fill out your sentences, to make your movements the commentary of your words? Laura, haven't you noticed? At times I think the very corners of my mind are revealed to him. He reads me like a child's lesson book."

"Yes," said Mrs. Adair, "you are at a disadvantage. You no longer have your face to screen your thoughts."

"And his eyes no longer tell me anything at all," Ethne added.

There was truth in both remarks. So long as Durrance had had Ethne's face with its bright colour and her steady, frank, grey eyes visible before him, he could hardly weigh her intervals of silence and her movements against her spoken words with the detachment which was now possible to him. On the other hand, whereas before she had never been troubled by a doubt as to what he meant or wished, or intended, now she was often in the dark. Durrance's blindness, in a word, had produced an effect entirely opposite to that which might have been expected. It had reversed their positions.

Mrs. Adair, however, was more interested in Ethne's unusual burst of confidence. There was no doubt of it, she reflected. The girl, once remarkable for a quiet frankness of word and look, was declining into a creature of shifts and agitation.

"There is something, then, to be concealed from him?" she asked quietly.


"Something rather important?"

"Something which at all costs I must conceal," Ethne exclaimed, and was not sure, even while she spoke, that Durrance had not already found it out. She stepped over the threshold of the window on to the terrace. In front of her the lawn stretched to a hedge; on the far side of that hedge a couple of grass fields lifted and fell in gentle undulations; and beyond the fields she could see amongst a cluster of trees the smoke from the chimneys of Colonel Durrance's house. She stood for a little while hesitating upon the terrace. On the left the lawn ran down to a line of tall beeches and oaks which fringed the creek. But a broad space had been cleared to make a gap upon the bank, so that Ethne could see the sunlight on the water and the wooded slope on the farther side, and a sailing-boat some way down the creek tacking slowly against the light wind. Ethne looked about her, as though she was summoning her resources, and even composing her sentences ready for delivery to the man who was walking steadily towards her across the lawn. If there was hesitation upon her part, there was none at all, she noticed, on the part of the blind man. It seemed that Durrance's eyes took in the path which his feet trod, and with the stick which he carried in his hand he switched at the blades of grass like one that carries it from habit rather than for any use. Ethne descended the steps and advanced to meet him. She walked slowly, as if to a difficult encounter.

But there was another who only waited an opportunity to engage in it with eagerness. For as Ethne descended the steps Mrs. Adair suddenly dropped the book which she had pretended to resume and ran towards the window. Hidden by the drapery of the curtain she looked out and watched. The smile was still upon her lips, but a fierce light had brightened in her eyes, and her face had the drawn look of hunger.

"Something which at all costs she must conceal," she said to herself, and she said it in a voice of exultation. There was contempt too in her tone, contempt for Ethne Eustace, the woman of the open air who was afraid, who shrank from marriage with a blind man, and dreaded the restraint upon her freedom. It was that shrinking which Ethne had to conceal-Mrs. Adair had no doubt of it. "For my part, I am glad," she said, and she was-fiercely glad that blindness had disabled Durrance. For if her opportunity ever came, as it seemed to her now more and more likely to come, blindness reserved him to her, as no man was ever reserved to any woman. So jealous was she of his every word and look that his dependence upon her would be the extreme of pleasure. She watched Ethne and Durrance meet on the lawn at the foot of the terrace steps. She saw them turn and walk side by side across the grass towards the creek. She noticed that Ethne seemed to plead, and in her heart she longed to overhear.

And Ethne was pleading.

"You saw your oculist yesterday?" she asked quickly, as soon as they met. "Well, what did he say?"

Durrance shrugged his shoulders.

"That one must wait. Only time can show whether a cure is possible or not," he answered, and Ethne bent forward a little and scrutinised his face as though she doubted that he spoke the truth.

"But must you and I wait?" she asked.

"Surely," he returned. "It would be wiser on all counts." And thereupon he asked her suddenly a question of which she did not see the drift. "It was Mrs. Adair, I imagine, who proposed this plan that I should come home to Guessens and that you should stay with her here across the fields?"

Ethne was puzzled by the question, but she answered it directly and truthfully. "I was in great distress when I heard of your accident. I was so distressed that at the first I could not think what to do. I came to London and told Laura, since she is my friend, and this was her plan. Of course I welcomed it with all my heart;" and the note of pleading rang in her voice. She was asking Durrance to confirm her words, and he understood that. He turned towards her with a smile.

"I know that very well, Ethne," he said gently.

Ethne drew a breath of relief, and the anxiety passed for a little while from her face.

"It was kind of Mrs. Adair," he resumed, "but it is rather hard on you, who would like to be back in your own country. I remember very well a sentence which Harry Feversham-" He spoke the name quite carelessly, but paused just for a moment after he had spoken it. No expression upon his face showed that he had any intention in so pausing, but Ethne suspected one. He was listening, she suspected, for some movement of uneasiness, perhaps of pain, into which she might possibly be betrayed. But she made no movement. "A sentence which Harry Feversham spoke a long while since," he continued, "in London just before I left London for Egypt. He was speaking of you, and he said: 'She is of her country and more of her county. I do not think she could be happy in any place which was not within reach of Donegal.' And when I remember that, it seems rather selfish that I should claim to keep you here at so much cost to you."

"I was not thinking of that," Ethne exclaimed, "when I asked why we must wait. That makes me out most selfish. I was merely wondering why you preferred to wait, why you insist upon it. For, of course, although one hopes and prays with all one's soul that you will get your sight back, the fact of a cure can make no difference."

She spoke slowly, and her voice again had a ring of pleading. This time Durrance did not confirm her words, and she repeated them with a greater emphasis, "It can make no difference."

Durrance started like a man roused from an abstraction.

"I beg your pardon, Ethne," he said. "I was thinking at the moment of Harry Feversham. There is something which I want you to tell me. You said a long time ago at Glenalla that you might one day bring yourself to tell it me, and I should rather like to know now. You see, Harry Feversham was my friend. I want you to tell me what happened that night at Lennon House to break off your engagement, to send him away an outcast."

Ethne was silent for a while, and then

she said gently: "I would rather not. It is all over and done with. I don't want you to ask me ever."

Durrance did not press for an answer in the slightest degree.

"Very well," he said cheerily, "I won't ask you. It might hurt you to answer, and I don't want, of course, to cause you pain."

"It's not on that account that I wish to say nothing," Ethne explained earnestly. She paused and chose her words. "It isn't that I am afraid of any pain. But what took place, took place such a long while ago-I look upon Mr. Feversham as a man whom one has known well, and who is now dead."

They were walking toward the wide gap in the line of trees upon the bank of the creek, and as Ethne spoke she raised her eyes from the ground. She saw that the little boat which she had noticed tacking up the creek while she hesitated upon the terrace had run its nose into the shore. The sail had been lowered, the little pole mast stuck up above the grass bank of the garden, and upon the bank itself a man was standing and staring vaguely towards the house as though not very sure of his ground.

"A stranger has landed from the creek," she said. "He looks as if he had lost his way. I will go on and put him right."

She ran forward as she spoke, seizing upon that stranger's presence as a means of relief, even if the relief was only to last for a minute. Such relief might be felt, she imagined, by a witness in a court when the judge rises for his half-hour at luncheon-time. For the close of an interview with Durrance left her continually with the sense that she had just stepped down from a witness-box where she had been subjected to a cross-examination so deft that she could not quite clearly perceive its tendency, although from the beginning she suspected it.

The stranger at the same time advanced to her. He was a man of the middle size, with a short snub nose, a pair of vacuous protruding brown eyes, and a moustache of some ferocity. He lifted his hat from his head and disclosed a round forehead which was going bald.

"I have sailed down from Kingsbridge," he said, "but I have never been in this part of the world before. Can you tell me if this house is called The Pool?"

"Yes; you will find Mrs. Adair if you go up the steps on to the terrace," said Ethne.

"I came to see Miss Eustace."

Ethne turned back to him with surprise.

"I am Miss Eustace."

The stranger contemplated her in silence.

"So I thought."

He twirled first one moustache and then the other before he spoke again.

"I have had some trouble to find you, Miss Eustace. I went all the way to Glenalla-for nothing. Rather hard on a man whose leave is short!"

"I am very sorry," said Ethne, with a smile; "but why have you been put to this trouble?"

Again the stranger curled a moustache. Again his eyes dwelt vacantly upon her before he spoke.

"You have forgotten my name, no doubt, by this time."

"I do not think that I have ever heard it," she answered.

"Oh, yes, you have, believe me. You heard it five years ago. I am Captain Willoughby."

Ethne drew sharply back; the bright colour paled in her cheeks; her lips set in a firm line, and her eyes grew very hard. She glowered at him silently.

Captain Willoughby was not in the least degree discomposed. He took his time to speak, and when he did it was rather with the air of a man forgiving a breach of manners, than of one making his excuses.

"I can quite understand that you do not welcome me, Miss Eustace, but none of us could foresee that you would be present when the three white feathers came into Feversham's hands."

Ethne swept the explanation aside.

"How do you know that I was present?" she asked.

"Feversham told me."

"You have seen him?"

The cry leaped loudly from her lips. It was just a throb of the heart made vocal. It startled Ethne as much as it surprised Captain Willoughby. She had schooled herself to omit Harry Feversham from her thoughts, and to obliterate him from her affections, and the cry showed to her how incompletely she had succeeded. Only a few minutes since she had spoken of him as one whom she looked upon as dead, and she had believed that she spoke the truth.

"You have actually seen him?" she repeated in a wondering voice. She gazed at her stolid companion with envy. "You have spoken to him? And he to you? When?"

"A year ago, at Suakin. Else why should I be here?"

The question came as a shock to Ethne. She did not guess the correct answer; she was not, indeed, sufficiently mistress of herself to speculate upon any answer, but she dreaded it, whatever it might be.

"Yes," she said slowly, and almost reluctantly. "After all, why are you here?"

Willoughby took a letter-case from his breast, opened it with deliberation, and shook out from one of its pockets into the palm of his hand a tiny, soiled, white feather. He held it out to Ethne.

"I have come to give you this."

Ethne did not take it. In fact, she positively shrank from it.

"Why?" she asked unsteadily.

"Three white feathers, three separate accusations of cowardice, were sent to Feversham by three separate men. This is actually one of those feathers which were forwarded from his lodgings to Ramelton five years ago. I am one of the three men who sent them. I have come to tell you that I withdraw my accusation. I take my feather back."

"And you bring it to me?"

"He asked me to."

Ethne took the feather in her palm, a thing in itself so light and fragile and yet so momentous as a symbol, and the trees and the garden began to whirl suddenly about her. She was aware that Captain Willoughby was speaking, but his voice had grown extraordinarily distant and thin; so that she was annoyed, since she wished very much to hear all that he had to say. She felt very cold, even upon that August day of sunlight. But the presence of Captain Willoughby, one of the three men whom she never would forgive, helped her to command herself. She would give no exhibition of weakness before any one of the detested three, and with an effort she recovered herself when she was on the very point of swooning.

"Come," she said, "I will hear your story. Your news was rather a shock to me. Even now I do not quite understand."

She led the way from that open space to a little plot of grass above the creek. On three sides thick hedges enclosed it, at the back rose the tall elms and poplars, in front the water flashed and broke in ripples, and beyond the water the trees rose again and were overtopped by sloping meadows. A gap in the hedge made an entrance into this enclosure, and a garden-seat stood in the centre of the grass.

"Now," said Ethne, and she motioned to Captain Willoughby to take a seat at her side. "You will take your time, perhaps. You will forget nothing. Even his words, if you remember them! I shall thank you for his words." She held that white feather clenched in her hand. Somehow Harry Feversham had redeemed his honour, somehow she had been unjust to him; and she was to learn how. She was in no hurry. She did not even feel one pang of remorse that she had been unjust. Remorse, no doubt, would come afterwards. At present the mere knowledge that she had been unjust was too great a happiness to admit of abatement. She opened her hand and looked at the feather. And as she looked, memories sternly repressed for so long, regrets which she had thought stifled quite out of life, longings which had grown strange, filled all her thoughts. The Devonshire meadows were about her, the salt of the sea was in the air, but she was back again in the midst of that one season at Dublin during a spring five years ago, before the feathers came to Ramelton.

Willoughby began to tell his story, and almost at once even the memory of that season vanished.

Ethne was in the most English of counties, the county of Plymouth and Dartmouth and Brixham and the Start, where the red cliffs of its coast-line speak perpetually of dead centuries, so that one cannot put into any harbour without some thought of the Spanish Main and of the little barques and pinnaces which adventured manfully out on their long voyages with the tide. Up this very creek the clink of the ship-builders' hammers had rung, and the soil upon its banks was vigorous with the memories of British sailors. But Ethne had no thought for these associations. The country-side was a shifting mist before her eyes, which now and then let through a glimpse of that strange wide country in the East, of which Durrance had so often told her. The only trees which she saw were the stunted mimosas of the desert; the only sea the great stretches of yellow sand; the only cliffs the sharp-peaked pyramidal black rocks rising abruptly from its surface. It was part of the irony of her position that she was able so much more completely to appreciate the trials which one lover of hers had undergone through the confidences which had been made to her by the other.

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