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   Chapter 17 THE MUSOLINE OVERTURE

The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 12056

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Mrs. Adair, on her side, asked for no explanations. She was naturally, behind her pale and placid countenance, a woman of a tortuous and intriguing mind. She preferred to look through a keyhole even when she could walk straight in at the door; and knowledge which could be gained by a little maneuvering was always more desirable and precious in her eyes than any information which a simple question would elicit. She avoided, indeed, the direct question on a perverted sort of principle, and she thought a day very well spent if at the close of it she had outwitted a companion into telling her spontaneously some trivial and unimportant piece of news which a straightforward request would have at once secured for her at breakfast-time.

Therefore, though she was mystified by the little white feather upon which Ethne seemed to set so much store, and wondered at the good news of Harry Feversham which Captain Willoughby had brought, and vainly puzzled her brains in conjecture as to what in the world could have happened on that night at Ramelton so many years ago, she betrayed nothing whatever of her perplexity all through lunch; on the contrary, she plied her guest with conversation upon indifferent topics. Mrs. Adair could be good company when she chose, and she chose now. But it was not to any purpose.

"I don't believe that you hear a single word I am saying!" she exclaimed.

Ethne laughed and pleaded guilty. She betook herself to her room as soon as lunch was finished, and allowed herself an afternoon of solitude. Sitting at her window, she repeated slowly the story which Willoughby had told to her that morning, and her heart thrilled to it as to music divinely played. The regret that he had not come home and told it a year ago, when she was free, was a small thing in comparison with the story itself. It could not outweigh the great gladness which that brought to her-it had, indeed, completely vanished from her thoughts. Her pride, which had never recovered from the blow which Harry Feversham had dealt to her in the hall at Lennon House, was now quite restored, and by the man who had dealt the blow. She was aglow with it, and most grateful to Harry Feversham for that he had, at so much peril to himself, restored it. She was conscious of a new exhilaration in the sunlight, of a quicker pulsation in her blood. Her youth was given back to her upon that August afternoon.

Ethne unlocked a drawer in her dressing-case, and took from it the portrait which alone of all Harry Feversham's presents she had kept. She rejoiced that she had kept it. It was the portrait of some one who was dead to her-that she knew very well, for there was no thought of disloyalty toward Durrance in her breast-but the some one was a friend. She looked at it with a great happiness and contentment, because Harry Feversham had needed no expression of faith from her to inspire him, and no encouragement from her to keep him through the years on the level of his high inspiration. When she put it back again, she laid the white feather in the drawer with it and locked the two things up together.

She came back to her window. Out upon the lawn a light breeze made the shadows from the high trees dance, the sunlight mellowed and reddened. But Ethne was of her county, as Harry Feversham had long ago discovered, and her heart yearned for it at this moment. It was the month of August. The first of the heather would be out upon the hillsides of Donegal, and she wished that the good news had been brought to her there. The regret that it had not was her crumpled rose-leaf. Here she was in a strange land; there the brown mountains, with their outcroppings of granite and the voices of the streams, would have shared, she almost thought, in her new happiness. Great sorrows or great joys had this in common for Ethne Eustace, they both drew her homewards, since there endurance was more easy and gladness more complete.

She had, however, one living tie with Donegal at her side, for Dermod's old collie dog had become her inseparable companion. To him she made her confidence, and if at times her voice broke in tears, why, the dog would not tell. She came to understand much which Willoughby had omitted, and which Feversham had never told. Those three years of concealment in the small and crowded city of Suakin, for instance, with the troops marching out to battle, and returning dust-strewn and bleeding and laurelled with victory. Harry Feversham had to slink away at their approach, lest some old friend of his-Durrance, perhaps, or Willoughby, or Trench-should notice him and penetrate his disguise. The panic which had beset him when first he saw the dark brown walls of Berber, the night in the ruined acres, the stumbling search for the well amongst the shifting sandhills of Obak,-Ethne had vivid pictures of these incidents, and as she thought of each she asked herself: "Where was I then? What was I doing?"

She sat in a golden mist until the lights began to change upon the still water of the creek, and the rooks wheeled noisily out from the tree-tops to sort themselves for the night, and warned her of evening.

She brought to the dinner-table that night a buoyancy of spirit which surprised her companions. Mrs. Adair had to admit that seldom had her eyes shone so starrily, or the colour so freshly graced her cheeks. She was more than ever certain that Captain Willoughby had brought stirring news; she was more than ever tortured by her vain efforts to guess its nature. But Mrs. Adair, in spite of her perplexities, took her share in the talk, and that dinner passed with a freedom from embarrassment unknown since Durrance had come home to Guessens. For he, too, threw off a burden of restraint; his spirits rose to match Ethne's; he answered laugh with laugh, and from his face that habitual look of tension, the look of a man listening with all his might that his ears might make good the loss of his eyes, passed altogether away.

"You will play on your violin to-night,

I think," he said with a smile, as they rose from the table.

"Yes," she answered, "I will-with all my heart."

Durrance laughed and held open the door. The violin had remained locked in its case during these last two months. Durrance had come to look upon that violin as a gauge and test. If the world was going well with Ethne, the case was unlocked, the instrument was allowed to speak; if the world went ill, it was kept silent lest it should say too much, and open old wounds and lay them bare to other eyes. Ethne herself knew it for an indiscreet friend. But it was to be brought out to-night.

Mrs. Adair lingered until Ethne was out of ear-shot.

"You have noticed the change in her to-night?" she said.

"Yes. Have I not?" answered Durrance. "One has waited for it, hoped for it, despaired of it."

"Are you so glad of the change?"

Durrance threw back his head. "Do you wonder that I am glad? Kind, friendly, unselfish-these things she has always been. But there is more than friendliness evident to-night, and for the first time it's evident."

There came a look of pity upon Mrs. Adair's face, and she passed out of the room without another word. Durrance took all of that great change in Ethne to himself. Mrs. Adair drew up the blinds of the drawing-room, opened the window, and let the moonlight in; and then, as she saw Ethne unlocking the case of her violin, she went out on to the terrace. She felt that she could not sit patiently in her company. So that when Durrance entered the drawing-room he found Ethne alone there. She was seated in the window, and already tightening the strings of her violin. Durrance took a chair behind her in the shadows.

"What shall I play to you?" she asked.

"The Musoline Overture," he answered. "You played it on the first evening when I came to Ramelton. I remember so well how you played it then. Play it again to-night. I want to compare."

"I have played it since."

"Never to me."

They were alone in the room; the windows stood open; it was a night of moonlight. Ethne suddenly crossed to the lamp and put it out. She resumed her seat, while Durrance remained in the shadow, leaning forward, with his hands upon his knees, listening-but with an intentness of which he had given no sign that evening. He was applying, as he thought, a final test upon which his life and hers should be decided. Ethne's violin would tell him assuredly whether he was right or no. Would friendship speak from it or the something more than friendship?

Ethne played the overture, and as she played she forgot that Durrance was in the room behind her. In the garden the air was still and summer-warm and fragrant; on the creek the moonlight lay like a solid floor of silver; the trees stood dreaming to the stars; and as the music floated loud out across the silent lawn, Ethne had a sudden fancy that it might perhaps travel down the creek and over Salcombe Bar and across the moonlit seas, and strike small yet wonderfully clear like fairy music upon the ears of a man sleeping somewhere far away beneath the brightness of the southern stars with the cool night wind of the desert blowing upon his face.

"If he could only hear!" she thought. "If he could only wake and know that what he heard was a message of friendship!"

And with this fancy in her mind she played with such skill as she had never used before; she made of her violin a voice of sympathy. The fancy grew and changed as she played. The music became a bridge swung in mid-air across the world, upon which just for these few minutes she and Harry Feversham might meet and shake hands. They would separate, of course, forthwith, and each one go upon the allotted way. But these few minutes would be a help to both along the separate ways. The chords rang upon silence. It seemed to Ethne that they declaimed the pride which had come to her that day. Her fancy grew into a belief. It was no longer "If he should hear," but "He must hear!" And so carried away was she from the discretion of thought that a strange hope suddenly sprang up and enthralled her.

"If he could answer!"

She lingered upon the last bars, waiting for the answer; and when the music had died down to silence, she sat with her violin upon her knees, looking eagerly out across the moonlit garden.

And an answer did come, but it was not carried up the creek and across the lawn. It came from the dark shadows of the room behind her, and it was spoken through the voice of Durrance.

"Ethne, where do you think I heard that overture last played?"

Ethne was roused with a start to the consciousness that Durrance was in the room, and she answered like one shaken suddenly out of sleep.

"Why, you told me. At Ramelton, when you first came to Lennon House."

"I have heard it since, though it was not played by you. It was not really played at all. But a melody of it and not even that really, but a suggestion of a melody, I heard stumbled out upon a zither, with many false notes, by a Greek in a bare little whitewashed café, lit by one glaring lamp, at Wadi Halfa."

"This overture?" she said. "How strange!"

"Not so strange after all. For the Greek was Harry Feversham."

So the answer had come. Ethne had no doubt that it was an answer. She sat very still in the moonlight; only had any one bent over her with eyes to see, he would have discovered that her eyelids were closed. There followed a long silence. She did not consider why Durrance, having kept this knowledge secret so long, should speak of it now. She did not ask what Harry Feversham was doing that he must play the zither in a mean café at Wadi Halfa. But it seemed to her that he had spoken to her as she to him. The music had, after all, been a bridge. It was not even strange that he had used Durrance's voice wherewith to speak to her.

"When was this?" she asked at length.

"In February of this year. I will tell you about it."

"Yes, please, tell me."

And Durrance spoke out of the shadows of the room.

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