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   Chapter 33 ETHNE AGAIN PLAYS THE MUSOLINE OVERTURE

The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 12607

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The incredible words were spoken that evening. Ethne went into her farm-house and sat down in the parlour. She felt cold that summer evening and had the fire lighted. She sat gazing into the bright coals with that stillness of attitude which was a sure sign with her of tense emotion. The moment so eagerly looked for had come, and it was over. She was alone now in her remote little village, out of the world in the hills, and more alone than she had been since Willoughby sailed on that August morning down the Salcombe estuary. From the time of Willoughby's coming she had looked forward night and day to the one half-hour during which Harry Feversham would be with her. The half-hour had come and passed. She knew now how she had counted upon its coming, how she had lived for it. She felt lonely in a rather empty world. But it was part of her nature that she had foreseen this sense of loneliness; she had known that there would be a bad hour for her after she had sent Harry Feversham away, that all her heart and soul would clamour to her to call him back. And she forced herself, as she sat shivering by the fire, to remember that she had always foreseen and had always looked beyond it. To-morrow she would know again that they had not parted forever, to-morrow she would compare the parting of to-day with the parting on the night of the ball at Lennon House, and recognise what a small thing this was to that. She fell to wondering what Harry Feversham would do now that he had returned, and while she was building up for him a future of great distinction she felt Dermod's old collie dog nuzzling at her hand with his sure instinct that his mistress was in distress. Ethne rose from her chair and took the dog's head between her hands and kissed it. He was very old, she thought; he would die soon and leave her, and then there would be years and years, perhaps, before she lay down in her bed and knew the great moment was at hand.

There came a knock upon the door, and a servant told her that Colonel Durrance was waiting.

"Yes," she said, and as he entered the room she went forward to meet him. She did not shirk the part which she had allotted to herself. She stepped out from the secret chamber of her grief as soon as she was summoned.

She talked with her visitor as though no unusual thing had happened an hour before, she even talked of their marriage and the rebuilding of Lennon House. It was difficult, but she had grown used to difficulties. Only that night Durrance made her path a little harder to tread. He asked her, after the maid had brought in the tea, to play to him the Musoline Overture upon her violin.

"Not to-night," said Ethne. "I am rather tired." And she had hardly spoken before she changed her mind. Ethne was determined that in the small things as well as in the great she must not shirk. The small things with their daily happenings were just those about which she must be most careful. "Still I think that I can play the overture," she said with a smile, and she took down her violin. She played the overture through from the beginning to the end. Durrance stood at the window with his back towards her until she had ended. Then he walked to her side.

"I was rather a brute," he said quietly, "to ask you to play that overture to-night."

"I wasn't anxious to play," she answered as she laid the violin aside.

"I know. But I was anxious to find out something, and I knew no other way of finding it out."

Ethne turned up to him a startled face.

"What do you mean?" she asked in a voice of suspense.

"You are so seldom off your guard. Only indeed at rare times when you play. Once before when you played that overture you were off your guard. I thought that if I could get you to play it again to-night-the overture which was once strummed out in a dingy café at Wadi Halfa-to-night again I should find you off your guard."

His words took her breath away and the colour from her cheeks. She got up slowly from her chair and stared at him wide-eyed. He could not know. It was impossible. He did not know.

But Durrance went quietly on.

"Well? Did you take back your feather? The fourth one?"

These to Ethne were the incredible words. Durrance spoke them with a smile upon his face. It took her a long time to understand that he had actually spoken them. She was not sure at the first that her overstrained senses were not playing her tricks; but he repeated his question, and she could no longer disbelieve or misunderstand.

"Who told you of any fourth feather?" she asked.

"Trench," he answered. "I met him at Dover. But he only told me of the fourth feather," said Durrance. "I knew of the three before. Trench would never have told me of the fourth had I not known of the three. For I should not have met him as he landed from the steamer at Dover. I should not have asked him, 'Where is Harry Feversham?' And for me to know of the three was enough."

"How do you know?" she cried in a kind of despair, and coming close to her he took gently hold of her arm.

"But since I know," he protested, "what does it matter how I know? I have known a long while, ever since Captain Willoughby came to The Pool with the first feather. I waited to tell you that I knew until Harry Feversham came back, and he came to-day."

Ethne sat down in her chair again. She was stunned by Durrance's unexpected disclosure. She had so carefully guarded her secret, that to realise that for a year it had been no secret came as a shock to her. But, even in the midst of her confusion, she understood that she must have time to gather up her faculties again under command. So she spoke of the unimportant thing to gain the time.

"You were in the church, then? Or you heard us upon the steps? Or you met-him as he rode away?"

"Not one of the conjectures is right," said Durrance, with a smile. Ethne had hit upon the right subject to delay the statement of the decision to which she knew very well that he had come. Durrance had his vanities like others; and in particular one vanity which had sprung up within him since he had become blind. He prided himself upon the quickness of his perception. It was a delight to him to make discoveries which no one expected a man who had lost his sight to make, and to announce them un

expectedly. It was an additional pleasure to relate to his puzzled audience the steps by which he had reached his discovery. "Not one of your conjectures is right, Ethne," he said, and he practically asked her to question him.

"Then how did you find out?" she asked.

"I knew from Trench that Harry Feversham would come some day, and soon. I passed the church this afternoon. Your collie dog barked at me. So I knew you were inside. But a saddled horse was tied up beside the gate. So some one else was with you, and not any one from the village. Then I got you to play, and that told me who it was who rode the horse."

"Yes," said Ethne, vaguely. She had barely listened to his words. "Yes, I see." Then in a definite voice, which showed that she had regained all her self-control, she said:-

"You went away to Wiesbaden for a year. You went away just after Captain Willoughby came. Was that the reason why you went away?"

"I went because neither you nor I could have kept up the game of pretences we were playing. You were pretending that you had no thought for Harry Feversham, that you hardly cared whether he was alive or dead. I was pretending not to have found out that beyond everything in the world you cared for him. Some day or other we should have failed, each one in turn. I dared not fail, nor dared you. I could not let you, who had said 'Two lives must not be spoilt because of me,' live through a year thinking that two lives had been spoilt. You on your side dared not let me, who had said 'Marriage between a blind man and a woman is only possible when there is more than friendship on both sides,' know that upon one side there was only friendship, and we were so near to failing. So I went away."

"You did not fail," said Ethne, quietly; "it was only I who failed."

She blamed herself most bitterly. She had set herself, as the one thing worth doing, and incumbent on her to do, to guard this man from knowledge which would set the crown on his calamities, and she had failed. He had set himself to protect her from the comprehension that she had failed, and he had succeeded. It was not any mere sense of humiliation, due to the fact that the man whom she had thought to hoodwink had hoodwinked her, which troubled her. But she felt that she ought to have succeeded, since by failure she had robbed him of his last chance of happiness. There lay the sting for her.

"But it was not your fault," he said. "Once or twice, as I said, you were off your guard, but the convincing facts were not revealed to me in that way. When you played the Musoline Overture before, on the night of the day when Willoughby brought you such good news, I took to myself that happiness of yours which inspired your playing. You must not blame yourself. On the contrary, you should be glad that I have found out."

"Glad!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, for my sake, glad." And as she looked at him in wonderment he went on: "Two lives should not be spoilt because of you. Had you had your way, had I not found out, not two but three lives would have been spoilt because of you-because of your loyalty."

"Three?"

"Yours. Yes-yes, yours, Feversham's, and mine. It was hard enough to keep the pretence during the few weeks we were in Devonshire. Own to it, Ethne! When I went to London to see my oculist it was a relief; it gave you a pause, a rest wherein to drop pretence and be yourself. It could not have lasted long even in Devonshire. But what when we came to live under the same roof, and there were no visits to the oculist, when we saw each other every hour of every day? Sooner or later the truth must have come to me. It might have come gradually, a suspicion added to a suspicion and another to that until no doubt was left. Or it might have flashed out in one terrible moment. But it would have been made clear. And then, Ethne? What then? You aimed at a compensation; you wanted to make up to me for the loss of what I love-my career, the army, the special service in the strange quarters of the world. A fine compensation to sit in front of you knowing you had married a cripple out of pity, and that in so doing you had crippled yourself and foregone the happiness which is yours by right. Whereas now-"

"Whereas now?" she repeated.

"I remain your friend, which I would rather be than your unloved husband," he said very gently.

Ethne made no rejoinder. The decision had been taken out of her hands.

"You sent Harry away this afternoon," said Durrance. "You said good-bye to him twice."

At the "twice" Ethne raised her head, but before she could speak Durrance explained:-

"Once in the church, again upon your violin," and he took up the instrument from the chair on which she had laid it. "It has been a very good friend, your violin," he said. "A good friend to me, to us all. You will understand that, Ethne, very soon. I stood at the window while you played it. I had never heard anything in my life half so sad as your farewell to Harry Feversham, and yet it was nobly sad. It was true music, it did not complain." He laid the violin down upon the chair again.

"I am going to send a messenger to Rathmullen. Harry cannot cross Lough Swilly to-night. The messenger will bring him back to-morrow."

It had been a day of many emotions and surprises for Ethne. As Durrance bent down towards her, he became aware that she was crying silently. For once tears had their way with her. He took his cap and walked noiselessly to the door of the room. As he opened it, Ethne got up.

"Don't go for a moment," she said, and she left the fireplace and came to the centre of the room.

"The oculist at Wiesbaden?" she asked. "He gave you a hope?"

Durrance stood meditating whether he should lie or speak the truth.

"No," he said at length. "There is no hope. But I am not so helpless as at one time I was afraid that I should be. I can get about, can't I? Perhaps one of these days I shall go on a journey, one of the long journeys amongst the strange people in the East."

He went from the house upon his errand. He had learned his lesson a long time since, and the violin had taught it him. It had spoken again that afternoon, and though with a different voice, had offered to him the same message. The true music cannot complain.

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