The Four Feathers/XII

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The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
XII: Durrance Sharpens His Wits

It was a night of May, and outside the mess-room at Wadi Halfa three officers were smoking on a grass knoll above the Nile. The moon was at its full, and the strong light had robbed even the planets of their lustre. The smaller stars were not visible at all, and the sky washed of its dark colour, curved overhead, pearly-hued and luminous. The three officers sat in their lounge chairs and smoked silently, while the bull-frogs croaked from an island in mid-river. At the bottom of the small steep cliff on which they sat the Nile, so sluggish was its flow, shone like a burnished mirror, and from the opposite bank the desert stretched away to infinite distances, a vast plain with scattered hummocks, a plain white as a hoar frost on the surface of which the stones sparkled like jewels. Behind the three officers of the garrison the roof of the mess-room verandah threw a shadow on the ground; it seemed a solid piece of blackness.

One of the three officers struck a match and held it to the end of his cigar. The flame lit up a troubled and anxious face.

"I hope that no harm has come to him," he said, as he threw the match away. "I wish that I could say I believed it."

The speaker was a man of middle age and the colonel of a Soudanese battalion. He was answered by a man whose hair had gone grey, it is true. But grey hair is frequent in the Soudan, and his unlined face still showed that he was young. He was Lieutenant Calder of the Engineers. Youth, however, in this instance had no optimism wherewith to challenge Colonel Dawson.

"He left Halfa eight weeks ago, eh?" he said gloomily.

"Eight weeks to-day," replied the colonel.

It was the third officer, a tall, spare, long-necked major of the Army Service Corps, who alone hazarded a cheerful prophecy.

"It's early days to conclude Durrance has got scuppered," said he. "One knows Durrance. Give him a camp-fire in the desert, and a couple of sheiks to sit round it with him, and he'll buck to them for a month and never feel bored at the end. While here there are letters, and there's an office, and there's a desk in the office and everything he loathes and can't do with. You'll see Durrance will turn up right enough, though he won't hurry about it."

"He is three weeks overdue," objected the colonel, "and he's methodical after a fashion. I am afraid."

Major Walters pointed out his arm to the white empty desert across the river.

"If he had travelled that way, westward, I might agree," he said. "But Durrance went east through the mountain country toward Berenice and the Red Sea. The tribes he went to visit were quiet, even in the worst times, when Osman Digna lay before Suakin."

The colonel, however, took no comfort from Walters's confidence. He tugged at his moustache and repeated, "He is three weeks overdue."

Lieutenant Calder knocked the ashes from his pipe and refilled it. He leaned forward in his chair as he pressed the tobacco down with his thumb, and he said slowly:—

"I wonder. It is just possible that some sort of trap was laid for Durrance. I am not sure. I never mentioned before what I knew, because until lately I did not suspect that it could have anything to do with his delay. But now I begin to wonder. You remember the night before he started?"

"Yes," said Dawson, and he hitched his chair a little nearer. Calder was the one man in Wadi Halfa who could claim something like intimacy with Durrance. Despite their difference in rank there was no great disparity in age between the two men, and from the first when Calder had come inexperienced and fresh from England, but with a great ardour to acquire a comprehensive experience, Durrance in his reticent way had been at pains to show the newcomer considerable friendship. Calder, therefore, might be likely to know.

"I too remember that night," said Walters. "Durrance dined at the mess and went away early to prepare for his journey."

"His preparations were made already," said Calder. "He went away early, as you say. But he did not go to his quarters. He walked along the river-bank to Tewfikieh."

Wadi Halfa was the military station, Tewfikieh a little frontier town to the north separated from Halfa by a mile of river-bank. A few Greeks kept stores there, a few bare and dirty cafés faced the street between native cook-shops and tobacconists'; a noisy little town where the negro from the Dinka country jolted the fellah from the Delta, and the air was torn with many dialects; a thronged little town, which yet lacked to European ears one distinctive element of a throng. There was no ring of footsteps. The crowd walked on sand and for the most part with naked feet, so that if for a rare moment the sharp high cries and the perpetual voices ceased, the figures of men and women flitted by noiseless as ghosts. And even at night, when the streets were most crowded and the uproar loudest, it seemed that underneath the noise, and almost appreciable to the ear, there lay a deep and brooding silence, the silence of deserts and the East.

"Durrance went down to Tewfikieh at ten o'clock that night," said Calder. "I went to his quarters at eleven. He had not returned. He was starting eastward at four in the morning, and there was some detail of business on which I wished to speak to him before he went. So I waited for his return. He came in about a quarter of an hour afterwards and told me at once that I must be quick, since he was expecting a visitor. He spoke quickly and rather restlessly. He seemed to be labouring under some excitement. He barely listened to what I had to say, and he answered me at random. It was quite evident that he was moved, and rather deeply moved, by some unusual feeling, though at the nature of the feeling I could not guess. For at one moment it seemed certainly to be anger, and the next moment he relaxed into a laugh, as though in spite of himself he was glad. However, he bundled me out, and as I went I heard him telling his servant to go to bed, because, though he expected a visitor, he would admit the visitor himself."

"Well!" said Dawson, "and who was the visitor?"

"I do not know," answered Calder. "The one thing I do know is that when Durrance's servant went to call him at four o'clock for his journey, he found Durrance still sitting on the verandah outside his quarters, as though he still expected his visitor. The visitor had not come."

"And Durrance left no message?"

"No. I was up myself before he started. I thought that he was puzzled and worried. I thought, too, that he meant to tell me what was the matter. I still think that he had that in his mind, but that he could not decide. For even after he had taken his seat upon his saddle and his camel had risen from the ground, he turned and looked down towards me. But he thought better of it, or worse, as the case may be. At all events, he did not speak. He struck the camel on the flank with his stick, and rode slowly past the post-office and out into the desert, with his head sunk upon his breast. I wonder whether he rode into a trap. Who could this visitor have been whom he meets in the street of Tewfikieh, and who must come so secretly to Wadi Halfa? What can have been his business with Durrance? Important business, troublesome business—so much is evident. And he did not come to transact it. Was the whole thing a lure to which we have not the clue? Like Colonel Dawson, I am afraid."

There was a silence after he had finished, which Major Walters was the first to break. He offered no argument—he simply expressed again his unalterable cheerfulness.

"I don't think Durrance has got scuppered," said he, as he rose from his chair.

"I know what I shall do," said the colonel. "I shall send out a strong search party in the morning."

And the next morning, as they sat at breakfast on the verandah, he at once proceeded to describe the force which he meant to despatch. Major Walters, too, it seemed, in spite of his hopeful prophecies, had pondered during the night over Calder's story, and he leaned across the table to Calder.

"Did you never inquire whom Durrance talked with at Tewfikieh on that night?" he asked.

"I did, and there's a point that puzzles me," said Calder. He was sitting with his back to the Nile and his face towards the glass doors of the mess-room, and he spoke to Walters, who was directly opposite. "I could not find that he talked to more than one person, and that one person could not by any likelihood have been the visitor he expected. Durrance stopped in front of a café where some strolling musicians, who had somehow wandered up to Tewfikieh, were playing and singing for their night's lodging. One of them, a Greek I was told, came outside into the street and took his hat round. Durrance threw a sovereign into the hat, the man turned to thank him, and they talked for a little time together;" and as he came to this point he raised his head. A look of recognition came into his face. He laid his hands upon the table-edge, and leaned forward with his feet drawn back beneath his chair as though he was on the point of springing up. But he did not spring up. His look of recognition became one of bewilderment. He glanced round the table and saw that Colonel Dawson was helping himself to cocoa, while Major Walters's eyes were on his plate. There were other officers of the garrison present, but not one had remarked his movement and its sudden arrest. Calder leaned back, and staring curiously in front of him and over the major's shoulder, continued his story. "But I could never hear that Durrance spoke to any one else. He seemed, except that one knows to the contrary, merely to have strolled through the village and back again to Wadi Halfa."

"That doesn't help us much," said the major.

"And it's all you know?" asked the colonel.

"No, not quite all," returned Calder, slowly; "I know, for instance, that the man we are talking about is staring me straight in the face."

At once everybody at the table turned towards the mess-room.

"Durrance!" cried the colonel, springing up.

"When did you get back?" said the major.

Durrance, with the dust of his journey still powdered upon his clothes, and a face burnt to the colour of red brick, was standing in the doorway, and listening with a remarkable intentness to the voices of his fellow-officers. It was perhaps noticeable that Calder, who was Durrance's friend, neither rose from his chair nor offered any greeting. He still sat watching Durrance; he still remained curious and perplexed; but as Durrance descended the three steps into the verandah there came a quick and troubled look of comprehension into his face.

"We expected you three weeks ago," said Dawson, as he pulled a chair away from an empty place at the table.

"The delay could not be helped," replied Durrance. He took the chair and drew it up.

"Does my story account for it?" asked Calder.

"Not a bit. It was the Greek musician I expected that night," he explained with a laugh. "I was curious to know what stroke of ill-luck had cast him out to play the zither for a night's lodging in a café at Tewfikieh. That was all," and he added slowly, in a softer voice, "Yes, that was all."

"Meanwhile you are forgetting your breakfast," said Dawson, as he rose. "What will you have?"

Calder leaned ever so slightly forward with his eyes quietly resting on Durrance. Durrance looked round the table, and then called the mess-waiter. "Moussa, get me something cold," said he, and the waiter went back into the mess-room. Calder nodded his head with a faint smile, as though he understood that here was a difficulty rather cleverly surmounted.

"There's tea, cocoa, and coffee," he said. "Help yourself, Durrance."

"Thanks," said Durrance. "I see, but I will get Moussa to bring me a brandy-and-soda, I think," and again Calder nodded his head.

Durrance ate his breakfast and drank his brandy-and-soda, and talked the while of his journey. He had travelled farther eastward than he had intended. He had found the Ababdeh Arabs quiet amongst their mountains. If they were not disposed to acknowledge allegiance to Egypt, on the other hand they paid no tribute to Mahommed Achmet. The weather had been good, ibex and antelope plentiful. Durrance, on the whole, had reason to be content with his journey. And Calder sat and watched him, and disbelieved every word that he said. The other officers went about their duties; Calder remained behind, and waited until Durrance should finish. But it seemed that Durrance never would finish. He loitered over his breakfast, and when that was done he pushed his plate away and sat talking. There was no end to his questions as to what had passed at Wadi Halfa during the last eight weeks, no limit to his enthusiasm over the journey from which he had just returned. Finally, however, he stopped with a remarkable abruptness, and said, with some suspicion, to his companion:—

"You are taking life easily this morning."

"I have not eight weeks' arrears of letters to clear off, as you have, Colonel," Calder returned with a laugh; and he saw Durrance's face cloud and his forehead contract.

"True," he said, after a pause. "I had forgotten my letters." And he rose from his seat at the table, mounted the steps, and passed into the mess-room.

Calder immediately sprang up, and with his eyes followed Durrance's movements. Durrance went to a nail which was fixed in the wall close to the glass doors and on a level with his head. From that nail he took down the key of his office, crossed the room, and went out through the farther door. That door he left open, and Calder could see him walk down the path between the bushes through the tiny garden in front of the mess, unlatch the gate, and cross the open space of sand towards his office. As soon as Durrance had disappeared Calder sat down again, and, resting his elbows on the table, propped his face between his hands. Calder was troubled. He was a friend of Durrance; he was the one man in Wadi Halfa who possessed something of Durrance's confidence; he knew that there were certain letters in a woman's handwriting waiting for him in his office. He was very deeply troubled. Durrance had aged during these eight weeks. There were furrows about his mouth where only faint lines had been visible when he had started out from Halfa; and it was not merely desert dust which had discoloured his hair. His hilarity, too, had an artificial air. He had sat at the table constraining himself to the semblance of high spirits. Calder lit his pipe, and sat for a long while by the empty table.

Then he took his helmet and crossed the sand to Durrance's office. He lifted the latch noiselessly; as noiselessly he opened the door, and he looked in. Durrance was sitting at his desk with his head bowed upon his arms and all his letters unopened at his side. Calder stepped into the room and closed the door loudly behind him. At once Durrance turned his face to the door.

"Well?" said he.

"I have a paper, Colonel, which requires your signature," said Calder. "It's the authority for the alterations in C barracks. You remember?"

"Very well. I will look through it and return it to you, signed, at lunch-time. Will you give it to me, please?"

He held out his hand towards Calder. Calder took his pipe from his mouth, and, standing thus in full view of Durrance, slowly and deliberately placed it into Durrance's outstretched palm. It was not until the hot bowl burnt his hand that Durrance snatched his arm away. The pipe fell and broke upon the floor. Neither of the two men spoke for a few moments, and then Calder put his arm round Durrance's shoulder, and asked in a voice gentle as a woman's:—

"How did it happen?"

Durrance buried his face in his hands. The great control which he had exercised till now he was no longer able to sustain. He did not answer, nor did he utter any sound, but he sat shivering from head to foot.

"How did it happen?" Calder asked again, and in a whisper.

Durrance put another question:—

"How did you find out?"

"You stood in the mess-room doorway listening to discover whose voice spoke from where. When I raised my head and saw you, though your eyes rested on my face there was no recognition in them. I suspected then. When you came down the steps into the verandah I became almost certain. When you would not help yourself to food, when you reached out your arm over your shoulder so that Moussa had to put the brandy-and-soda safely into your palm, I was sure."

"I was a fool to try and hide it," said Durrance. "Of course I knew all the time that I couldn't for more than a few hours. But even those few hours somehow seemed a gain."

"How did it happen?"

"There was a high wind," Durrance explained. "It took my helmet off. It was eight o'clock in the morning. I did not mean to move my camp that day, and I was standing outside my tent in my shirt-sleeves. So you see that I had not even the collar of a coat to protect the nape of my neck. I was fool enough to run after my helmet; and—you must have seen the same thing happen a hundred times—each time that I stooped to pick it up it skipped away; each time that I ran after it, it stopped and waited for me to catch it up. And before one was aware what one was doing, one had run a quarter of a mile. I went down, I was told, like a log just when I had the helmet in my hand. How long ago it happened I don't quite know, for I was ill for a time, and afterwards it was difficult to keep count, since one couldn't tell the difference between day and night."

Durrance, in a word, had gone blind. He told the rest of his story. He had bidden his followers carry him back to Berber, and then, influenced by the natural wish to hide his calamity as long as he could, he had enjoined upon them silence. Calder heard the story through to the end, and then rose at once to his feet.

"There's a doctor. He is clever, and, for a Syrian, knows a good deal. I will fetch him here privately, and we will hear what he says. Your blindness may be merely temporary."

The Syrian doctor, however, pursed up his lips and shook his head. He advised an immediate departure to Cairo. It was a case for a specialist. He himself would hesitate to pronounce an opinion; though, to be sure, there was always hope of a cure.

"Have you ever suffered an injury in the head?" he asked. "Were you ever thrown from your horse? Were you wounded?"

"No," said Durrance.

The Syrian did not disguise his conviction that the case was grave; and after he had departed both men were silent for some time. Calder had a feeling that any attempt at consolation would be futile in itself, and might, moreover, in betraying his own fear that the hurt was irreparable, only discourage his companion. He turned to the pile of letters and looked them through.

"There are two letters here, Durrance," he said gently, "which you might perhaps care to hear. They are written in a woman's hand, and there is an Irish postmark. Shall I open them?"

"No," exclaimed Durrance, suddenly, and his hand dropped quickly upon Calder's arm. "By no means."

Calder, however, did not put down the letters. He was anxious, for private reasons of his own, to learn something more of Ethne Eustace than the outside of her letters could reveal. A few rare references made in unusual moments of confidence by Durrance had only informed Calder of her name, and assured him that his friend would be very glad to change it if he could. He looked at Durrance—a man so trained to vigour and activity that his very sunburn seemed an essential quality rather than an accident of the country in which he lived; a man, too, who came to the wild, uncitied places of the world with the joy of one who comes into an inheritance; a man to whom these desolate tracts were home, and the fireside and the hedged fields and made roads merely the other places; and he understood the magnitude of the calamity which had befallen him. Therefore he was most anxious to know more of this girl who wrote to Durrance from Donegal, and to gather from her letters, as from a mirror in which her image was reflected, some speculation as to her character. For if she failed, what had this friend of his any longer left?

"You would like to hear them, I expect," he insisted. "You have been away eight weeks." And he was interrupted by a harsh laugh.

"Do you know what I was thinking when I stopped you?" said Durrance. "Why, that I would read the letters after you had gone. It takes time to get used to being blind after your eyes have served you pretty well all your life." And his voice shook ever so little. "You will have to help me to answer them, Calder. So read them. Please read them."

Calder tore open the envelopes and read the letters through and was satisfied. They gave a record of the simple doings of her mountain village in Donegal, and in the simplest terms. But the girl's nature shone out in the telling. Her love of the country-side and of the people who dwelt there was manifest. She could see the humour and the tragedy of the small village troubles. There was a warm friendliness for Durrance moreover expressed, not so much in a sentence as in the whole spirit of the letters. It was evident that she was most keenly interested in all that he did; that, in a way, she looked upon his career as a thing in which she had a share, even if it was only a friend's share. And when Calder had ended he looked again at Durrance, but now with a face of relief. It seemed, too, that Durrance was relieved.

"After all, one has something to be thankful for," he cried. "Think! Suppose that I had been engaged to her! She would never have allowed me to break it off, once I had gone blind. What an escape!"

"An escape?" exclaimed Calder.

"You don't understand. But I knew a man who went blind; a good fellow, too, before—mind that, before! But a year after! You couldn't have recognised him. He had narrowed down into the most selfish, exacting, egotistical creature it is possible to imagine. I don't wonder; I hardly see how he could help it; I don't blame him. But it wouldn't make life easier for a wife, would it? A helpless husband who can't cross a road without his wife at his elbow is bad enough. But make him a selfish beast into the bargain, full of questions, jealous of her power to go where she will, curious as to every person with whom she speaks—and what then? My God, I am glad that girl refused me. For that I am most grateful."

"She refused you?" asked Calder, and the relief passed from his face and voice.

"Twice," said Durrance. "What an escape! You see, Calder, I shall be more trouble even than the man I told you of. I am not clever. I can't sit in a chair and amuse myself by thinking, not having any intellect to buck about. I have lived out of doors and hard, and that's the only sort of life that suits me. I tell you, Calder, you won't be very anxious for much of my society in a year's time," and he laughed again and with the same harshness.

"Oh, stop that," said Calder; "I will read the rest of your letters to you."

He read them, however, without much attention to their contents. His mind was occupied with the two letters from Ethne Eustace, and he was wondering whether there was any deeper emotion than mere friendship hidden beneath the words. Girls refused men for all sorts of queer reasons which had no sense in them, and very often they were sick and sorry about it afterwards; and very often they meant to accept the men all the time.

"I must answer the letters from Ireland," said Durrance, when he had finished. "The rest can wait."

Calder held a sheet of paper upon the desk and told Durrance when he was writing on a slant and when he was writing on the blotting-pad; and in this way Durrance wrote to tell Ethne that a sunstroke had deprived him of his sight. Calder took that letter away. But he took it to the hospital and asked for the Syrian doctor. The doctor came out to him, and they walked together under the trees in front of the building.

"Tell me the truth," said Calder.

The doctor blinked behind his spectacles.

"The optic nerve is, I think, destroyed," he replied.

"Then there is no hope?"

"None, if my diagnosis is correct."

Calder turned the letter over and over, as though he could not make up his mind what in the world to do with it.

"Can a sunstroke destroy the optic nerve?" he asked at length.

"A mere sunstroke? No," replied the doctor. "But it may be the occasion. For the cause one must look deeper."

Calder came to a stop, and there was a look of horror in his eyes. "You mean—one must look to the brain?"

"Yes."

They walked on for a few paces. A further question was in Calder's mind, but he had some difficulty in speaking it, and when he had spoken he waited for the answer in suspense.

"Then this calamity is not all. There will be more to follow—death or—" but that other alternative he could not bring himself to utter. Here, however, the doctor was able to reassure him.

"No. That does not follow."

Calder went back to the mess-room and called for a brandy-and-soda. He was more disturbed by the blow which had fallen upon Durrance than he would have cared to own; and he put the letter upon the table and thought of the message of renunciation which it contained, and he could hardly restrain his fingers from tearing it across. It must be sent, he knew; its destruction would be of no more than a temporary avail. Yet he could hardly bring himself to post it. With the passage of every minute he realised more clearly what blindness meant to Durrance. A man not very clever, as he himself was ever the first to acknowledge, and always the inheritor of the other places,—how much more it meant to him than to the ordinary run of men! Would the girl, he wondered, understand as clearly? It was very silent that morning on the verandah at Wadi Halfa; the sunlight blazed upon desert and river; not a breath of wind stirred the foliage of any bush. Calder drank his brandy-and-soda, and slowly that question forced itself more and more into the front of his mind. Would the woman over in Ireland understand? He rose from his chair as he heard Colonel Dawson's voice in the mess-room, and taking up his letter, walked away to the post-office. Durrance's letter was despatched, but somewhere in the Mediterranean it crossed a letter from Ethne, which Durrance received a fortnight later at Cairo. It was read out to him by Calder, who had obtained leave to come down from Wadi Halfa with his friend. Ethne wrote that she had, during the last months, considered all that he had said when at Glenalla and in London; she had read, too, his letters and understood that in his thoughts of her there had been no change, and that there would be none; she therefore went back upon her old argument that she would, by marriage, be doing him an injury, and she would marry him upon his return to England.

"That's rough luck, isn't it?" said Durrance, when Calder had read the letter through. "For here's the one thing I have always wished for, and it comes when I can no longer take it."

"I think you will find it very difficult to refuse to take it," said Calder. "I do not know Miss Eustace, but I can hazard a guess from the letters of hers which I have read to you. I do not think that she is a woman who will say 'yes' one day, and then because bad times come to you say 'no' the next, or allow you to say 'no' for her, either. I have a sort of notion that since she cares for you and you for her, you are doing little less than insulting her if you imagine that she cannot marry you and still be happy."

Durrance thought over that aspect of the question, and began to wonder. Calder might be right. Marriage with a blind man! It might, perhaps, be possible if upon both sides there was love, and the letter from Ethne proved—did it not?—that on both sides there was love. Besides, there were some trivial compensations which might help to make her sacrifice less burdensome. She could still live in her own country and move in her own home. For the Lennon house could be rebuilt and the estates cleared of their debt.

"Besides," said Calder, "there is always a possibility of a cure."

"There is no such possibility," said Durrance, with a decision which quite startled his companion. "You know that as well as I do;" and he added with a laugh, "You needn't start so guiltily. I haven't overheard a word of any of your conversations about me."

"Then what in the world makes you think that there's no chance?"

"The voice of every doctor who has encouraged me to hope. Their words—yes—their words tell me to visit specialists in Europe, and not lose heart, but their voices give the lie to their words. If one cannot see, one can at all events hear."

Calder looked thoughtfully at his friend. This was not the only occasion on which of late Durrance had surprised his friends by an unusual acuteness. Calder glanced uncomfortably at the letter which he was still holding in his hand.

"When was that letter written?" said Durrance, suddenly; and immediately upon the question he asked another, "What makes you jump?"

Calder laughed and explained hastily. "Why, I was looking at the letter at the moment when you asked, and your question came so pat that I could hardly believe you did not see what I was doing. It was written on the fifteenth of May."

"Ah," said Durrance, "the day I returned to Wadi Halfa blind."

Calder sat in his chair without a movement. He gazed anxiously at his companion, it seemed almost as though he were afraid; his attitude was one of suspense.

"That's a queer coincidence," said Durrance, with a careless laugh; and Calder had an intuition that he was listening with the utmost intentness for some movement on his own part, perhaps a relaxation of his attitude, perhaps a breath of relief. Calder did not move, however; and he drew no breath of relief.