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The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 12841

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Lieutenant Sutch, though he went late to bed, was early astir in the morning. He roused the household, packed and repacked his clothes, and made such a bustle and confusion that everything to be done took twice its ordinary time in the doing. There never had been so much noise and flurry in the house during all the thirty years of Lieutenant Sutch's residence. His servants could not satisfy him, however quickly they scuttled about the passages in search of this or that forgotten article of his old travelling outfit. Sutch, indeed, was in a boyish fever of excitement. It was not to be wondered at, perhaps. For thirty years he had lived inactive-on the world's half-pay list, to quote his own phrase; and at the end of all that long time, miraculously, something had fallen to him to do-something important, something which needed energy and tact and decision. Lieutenant Sutch, in a word, was to be employed again. He was feverish to begin his employment. He dreaded the short interval before he could begin, lest some hindrance should unexpectedly occur and relegate him again to inactivity.

"I shall be ready this afternoon," he said briskly to Durrance as they breakfasted. "I shall catch the night mail to the Continent. We might go up to London together; for London is on your way to Wiesbaden."

"No," said Durrance, "I have just one more visit to pay in England. I did not think of it until I was in bed last night. You put it into my head."

"Oh," observed Sutch, "and whom do you propose to visit?"

"General Feversham," replied Durrance.

Sutch laid down his knife and fork and looked with surprise at his companion. "Why in the world do you wish to see him?" he asked.

"I want to tell him how Harry has redeemed his honour, how he is still redeeming it. You said last night that you were bound by a promise not to tell him anything of his son's intention, or even of his son's success until the son returned himself. But I am bound by no promise. I think such a promise bears hardly on the general. There is nothing in the world which could pain him so much as the proof that his son was a coward. Harry might have robbed and murdered. The old man would have preferred him to have committed both these crimes. I shall cross into Surrey this morning and tell him that Harry never was a coward."

Sutch shook his head.

"He will not be able to understand. He will be very grateful to you, of course. He will be very glad that Harry has atoned his disgrace, but he will never understand why he incurred it. And, after all, he will only be glad because the family honour is restored."

"I don't agree," said Durrance. "I believe the old man is rather fond of his son, though to be sure he would never admit it. I rather like General Feversham."

Lieutenant Sutch had seen very little of General Feversham during the last five years. He could not forgive him for his share in the responsibility of Harry Feversham's ruin. Had the general been capable of sympathy with and comprehension of the boy's nature, the white feathers would never have been sent to Ramelton. Sutch pictured the old man sitting sternly on his terrace at Broad Place, quite unaware that he was himself at all to blame, and on the contrary, rather inclined to pose as a martyr, in that his son had turned out a shame and disgrace to all the dead Fevershams whose portraits hung darkly on the high walls of the hall. Sutch felt that he could never endure to talk patiently with General Feversham, and he was sure that no argument would turn that stubborn man from his convictions. He had not troubled at all to consider whether the news which Durrance had brought should be handed on to Broad Place.

"You are very thoughtful for others," he said to Durrance.

"It's not to my credit. I practise thoughtfulness for others out of an instinct of self-preservation, that's all," said Durrance. "Selfishness is the natural and encroaching fault of the blind. I know that, so I am careful to guard against it."

He travelled accordingly that morning by branch lines from Hampshire into Surrey, and came to Broad Place in the glow of the afternoon. General Feversham was now within a few months of his eightieth year, and though his back was as stiff and his figure as erect as on that night now so many years ago when he first presented Harry to his Crimean friends, he was shrunken in stature, and his face seemed to have grown small. Durrance had walked with the general upon his terrace only two years ago, and blind though he was, he noticed a change within this interval of time. Old Feversham walked with a heavier step, and there had come a note of puerility into his voice.

"You have joined the veterans before your time, Durrance," he said. "I read of it in a newspaper. I would have written had I known where to write."

If he had any suspicion of Durrance's visit, he gave no sign of it. He rang the bell, and tea was brought into the great hall where the portraits hung. He asked after this and that officer in the Soudan with whom he was acquainted, he discussed the iniquities of the War Office, and feared that the country was going to the deuce.

"Everything through ill-luck or bad management is going to the devil, sir," he exclaimed irritably. "Even you, Durrance, you are not the same man who walked with me on my terrace two years ago."

The general had never been remarkable for tact, and the solitary life he led had certainly brought no improvement. Durrance could have countered with a tu quoque, but he refrained.

"But I come upon the same business," he said.

Feversham sat up stiffly in his chair.

"And I give you the same answer. I have nothing to say about Harry Feversham. I will not discuss him."

He spoke in his usual hard and emotionless voice. He might have been speaking of a stranger. Even the name was uttered without the slightest hint of sorrow. Durrance began to wonder whether the fountains of affection had not been altogether dried up in General Feversham's heart.

"It would not please you, then, to know where Harry Feversham has been, and how he has lived during the last five years?"

There was a pause-not a long pause, but still a pause-before General Feversham answered:-

"Not in the least, Colonel Durrance."

The answer was uncompromising, but Durrance relied upon the pause which preceded it.

"Nor on what business he has been e

ngaged?" he continued.

"I am not interested in the smallest degree. I do not wish him to starve, and my solicitor tells me that he draws his allowance. I am content with that knowledge, Colonel Durrance."

"I will risk your anger, General," said Durrance. "There are times when it is wise to disobey one's superior officer. This is one of the times. Of course you can turn me out of the house. Otherwise I shall relate to you the history of your son and my friend since he disappeared from England."

General Feversham laughed.

"Of course, I can't turn you out of the house," he said; and he added severely, "But I warn you that you are taking an improper advantage of your position as my guest."

"Yes, there is no doubt of that," Durrance answered calmly; and he told his story-the recovery of the Gordon letters from Berber, his own meeting with Harry Feversham at Wadi Halfa, and Harry's imprisonment at Omdurman. He brought it down to that very day, for he ended with the news of Lieutenant Sutch's departure for Suakin. General Feversham heard the whole account without an interruption, without even stirring in his chair. Durrance could not tell in what spirit he listened, but he drew some comfort from the fact that he did listen and without argument.

For some while after Durrance had finished, the general sat silent. He raised his hand to his forehead and shaded his eyes as though the man who had spoken could see, and thus he remained. Even when he did speak, he did not take his hand away. Pride forbade him to show to those portraits on the walls that he was capable even of so natural a weakness as joy at the reconquest of honour by his son.

"What I don't understand," he said slowly, "is why Harry ever resigned his commission. I could not understand it before; I understand it even less now since you have told me of his great bravery. It is one of the queer inexplicable things. They happen, and there's all that can be said. But I am very glad that you compelled me to listen to you, Durrance."

"I did it with a definite object. It is for you to say, of course, but for my part I do not see why Harry should not come home and enter in again to all that he lost."

"He cannot regain everything," said Feversham. "It is not right that he should. He committed the sin, and he must pay. He cannot regain his career for one thing."

"No, that is true; but he can find another. He is not yet so old but that he can find another. And that is all that he will have lost."

General Feversham now took his hand away and moved in his chair. He looked quickly at Durrance; he opened his mouth to ask a question, but changed his mind.

"Well," he said briskly, and as though the matter were of no particular importance, "if Sutch can manage Harry's escape from Omdurman, I see no reason, either, why he should not come home."

Durrance rose from his chair. "Thank you, General. If you can have me driven to the station, I can catch a train to town. There's one at six."

"But you will stay the night, surely," cried General Feversham.

"It is impossible. I start for Wiesbaden early to-morrow."

Feversham rang the bell and gave the order for a carriage. "I should have been very glad if you could have stayed," he said, turning to Durrance. "I see very few people nowadays. To tell the truth I have no great desire to see many. One grows old and a creature of customs."

"But you have your Crimean nights," said Durrance, cheerfully.

Feversham shook his head. "There have been none since Harry went away. I had no heart for them," he said slowly. For a second the mask was lifted and his stern features softened. He had suffered much during these five lonely years of his old age, though not one of his acquaintances up to this moment had ever detected a look upon his face or heard a sentence from his lips which could lead them so to think. He had shown a stubborn front to the world; he had made it a matter of pride that no one should be able to point a finger at him and say, "There's a man struck down." But on this one occasion and in these few words he revealed to Durrance the depth of his grief. Durrance understood how unendurable the chatter of his friends about the old days of war in the snowy trenches would have been. An anecdote recalling some particular act of courage would hurt as keenly as a story of cowardice. The whole history of his lonely life at Broad Place was laid bare in that simple statement that there had been no Crimean nights for he had no heart for them.

The wheels of the carriage rattled on the gravel.

"Good-bye," said Durrance, and he held out his hand.

"By the way," said Feversham, "to organise this escape from Omdurman will cost a great deal of money. Sutch is a poor man. Who is paying?"

"I am."

Feversham shook Durrance's hand in a firm clasp.

"It is my right, of course," he said.

"Certainly. I will let you know what it costs."

"Thank you."

General Feversham accompanied his visitor to the door. There was a question which he had it in his mind to ask, but the question was delicate. He stood uneasily on the steps of the house.

"Didn't I hear, Durrance," he said with an air of carelessness, "that you were engaged to Miss Eustace?"

"I think I said that Harry would regain all that he had lost except his career," said Durrance.

He stepped into the carriage and drove off to the station. His work was ended. There was nothing more for him now to do, except to wait at Wiesbaden and pray that Sutch might succeed. He had devised the plan, it remained for those who had eyes wherewith to see to execute it.

General Feversham stood upon the steps looking after the carriage until it disappeared among the pines. Then he walked slowly back into the hall. "There is no reason why he should not come back," he said. He looked up at the pictures. The dead Fevershams in their uniforms would not be disgraced. "No reason in the world," he said. "And, please God, he will come back soon." The dangers of an escape from the Dervish city remote among the sands began to loom very large on his mind. He owned to himself that he felt very tired and old, and many times that night he repeated his prayer, "Please God, Harry will come back soon," as he sat erect upon the bench which had once been his wife's favourite seat, and gazed out across the moonlit country to the Sussex Downs.

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