The Four Feathers/XXVII

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The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
XXVII: The House of Stone

These were the days before the great mud wall was built about the House of Stone in Omdurman. Only a thorn zareeba as yet enclosed that noisome prison and the space about it. It stood upon the eastern border of the town, surely the most squalid capital of any empire since the world began. Not a flower bloomed in a single corner. There was no grass nor the green shade of any tree. A brown and stony plain, burnt by the sun, and, built upon it a straggling narrow city of hovels crawling with vermin and poisoned with disease.

Between the prison and the Nile no houses stood, and at this time the prisoners were allowed, so long as daylight lasted, to stumble in their chains down the half-mile of broken sloping earth to the Nile bank, so that they might draw water for their use and perform their ablutions. For the native or the negro, then, escape was not so difficult. For along that bank the dhows were moored and they were numerous; the river traffic, such as there was of it, had its harbour there, and the wide foreshore made a convenient market-place. Thus the open space between the river and the House of Stone was thronged and clamorous all day, captives rubbed elbows with their friends, concerted plans of escape, or then and there slipped into the thickest of the crowd and made their way to the first blacksmith, with whom the price of iron outweighed any risk he took. But even on their way to the blacksmith's shop, their fetters called for no notice in Omdurman. Slaves wore them as a daily habit, and hardly a street in all that long brown treeless squalid city was ever free from the clink of a man who walked in chains.

But for the European escape was another matter. There were not so many white prisoners but that each was a marked man. Besides relays of camels stationed through the desert, much money, long preparations, and above all, devoted natives who would risk their lives, were the first necessities for their evasion. The camels might be procured and stationed, but it did not follow that their drivers would remain at the stations; the long preparations might be made and the whip of the gaoler overset them at the end by flogging the captive within an inch of his life, on a suspicion that he had money; the devoted servant might shrink at the last moment. Colonel Trench began to lose all hope. His friends were working for him, he knew. For at times the boy who brought his food into the prison would bid him be ready; at times, too, when at some parade of the Khalifa's troops he was shown in triumph as an emblem of the destiny of all the Turks, a man perhaps would jostle against his camel and whisper encouragements. But nothing ever came of the encouragements. He saw the sun rise daily beyond the bend of the river behind the tall palm trees of Khartum and burn across the sky, and the months dragged one after the other.

On an evening towards the end of August, in that year when Durrance came home blind from the Soudan, he sat in a corner of the enclosure watching the sun drop westwards towards the plain with an agony of anticipation. For however intolerable the heat and burden of the day, it was as nothing compared with the horrors which each night renewed. The moment of twilight came and with it Idris es Saier, the great negro of the Gawaamah tribe, and his fellow-gaolers.

"Into the House of Stone!" he cried.

Praying and cursing, with the sound of the pitiless whips falling perpetually upon the backs of the hindmost, the prisoners jostled and struggled at the narrow entrance to the prison house. Already it was occupied by some thirty captives, lying upon the swamped mud floor or supported against the wall in the last extremities of weakness and disease. Two hundred more were driven in at night and penned there till morning. The room was perhaps thirty feet square, of which four feet were occupied by a solid pillar supporting the roof. There was no window in the building; a few small apertures near the roof made a pretence of giving air, and into this foul and pestilent hovel the prisoners were packed, screaming and fighting. The door was closed upon them, utter darkness replaced the twilight, so that a man could not distinguish even the outlines of the heads of the neighbours who wedged him in.

Colonel Trench fought like the rest. There was a corner near the door which he coveted at that moment with a greater fierceness of desire than he had ever felt in the days when he had been free. Once in that corner, he would have some shelter from the blows, the stamping feet, the bruises of his neighbour's shackles; he would have, too, a support against which to lean his back during the ten interminable hours of suffocation.

"If I were to fall! If I were to fall!"

That fear was always with him when he was driven in at night. It worked in him like a drug producing madness. For if a man once went down amid that yelling, struggling throng, he never got up again—he was trampled out of shape. Trench had seen such victims dragged from the prison each morning; and he was a small man. Therefore he fought for his corner in a frenzy like a wild beast, kicking with his fetters, thrusting with his elbows, diving under this big man's arm, burrowing between two others, tearing at their clothes, using his nails, his fists, and even striking at heads with the chain which dangled from the iron ring about his neck. He reached the corner in the end, streaming with heat and gasping for breath; the rest of the night he would spend in holding it against all comers.

"If I were to fall!" he gasped. "O God, if I were to fall!" and he shouted aloud to his neighbour—for in that clamour nothing less than a shout was audible—"Is it you, Ibrahim?" and a like shout answered him, "Yes, Effendi."

Trench felt some relief. Between Ibrahim, a great tall Arab of the Hadendoas, and Trench, a friendship born of their common necessities had sprung up. There were no prison rations at Omdurman; each captive was dependent upon his own money or the charity of his friends outside. To Trench from time to time there came money from his friends, brought secretly into the prison by a native who had come up from Assouan or Suakin; but there were long periods during which no help came to him, and he lived upon the charity of the Greeks who had sworn conversion to the Mahdist faith, or starved with such patience as he could. There were times, too, when Ibrahim had no friend to send him his meal into the prison. And thus each man helped the other in his need. They stood side by side against the wall at night.

"Yes, Effendi, I am here," and groping with his hand in the black darkness, he steadied Trench against the wall.

A fight of even more than common violence was raging in an extreme corner of the prison, and so closely packed were the prisoners that with each advance of one combatant and retreat of the other, the whole jostled crowd swayed in a sort of rhythm, from end to end, from side to side. But they swayed, fighting to keep their feet, fighting even with their teeth, and above the din and noise of their hard breathing, the clank of their chains, and their imprecations, there rose now and then a wild sobbing cry for mercy, or an inhuman shriek, stifled as soon as uttered, which showed that a man had gone down beneath the stamping feet. Missiles, too, were flung across the prison, even to the foul earth gathered from the floor, and since none knew from what quarter they were flung, heads were battered against heads in the effort to avoid them. And all these things happened in the blackest darkness.

For two hours Trench stood in that black prison ringing with noise, rank with heat, and there were eight hours to follow before the door would be opened and he could stumble into the clean air and fall asleep in the zareeba. He stood upon tiptoe that he might lift his head above his fellows, but even so he could barely breathe, and the air he breathed was moist and sour. His throat was parched, his tongue was swollen in his mouth and stringy like a dried fig. It seemed to him that the imagination of God could devise no worse hell than the House of Stone on an August night in Omdurman. It could add fire, he thought, but only fire.

"If I were to fall!" he cried, and as he spoke his hell was made perfect, for the door was opened. Idris es Saier appeared in the opening.

"Make room," he cried, "make room," and he threw fire among the prisoners to drive them from the door. Lighted tufts of dried grass blazed in the darkness and fell upon the bodies of the prisoners. The captives were so crowded they could not avoid the missiles; in places, even, they could not lift their hands to dislodge them from their shoulders or their heads.

"Make room," cried Idris. The whips of his fellow-gaolers enforced his command, the lashes fell upon all within reach, and a little space was cleared within the door. Into that space a man was flung and the door closed again.

Trench was standing close to the door; in the dim twilight which came through the doorway he had caught a glimpse of the new prisoner, a man heavily ironed, slight of figure, and bent with suffering.

"He will fall," he said, "he will fall to-night. God! if I were to!" and suddenly the crowd swayed against him, and the curses rose louder and shriller than before.

The new prisoner was the cause. He clung to the door with his face against the panels, through the chinks of which actual air might come. Those behind plucked him from his vantage, jostled him, pressed him backwards that they might take his place. He was driven as a wedge is driven by a hammer, between this prisoner and that, until at last he was flung against Colonel Trench.

The ordinary instincts of kindness could not live in the nightmare of that prison house. In the daytime, outside, the prisoners were often drawn together by their bond of a common misery; the faithful as often as not helped the infidel. But to fight for life during the hours of darkness without pity or cessation was the one creed and practice of the House of Stone. Colonel Trench was like the rest. The need to live, if only long enough to drink one drop of water in the morning and draw one clean mouthful of fresh air, was more than uppermost in his mind. It was the only thought he had.

"Back!" he cried violently, "back, or I strike!"—and, as he wrestled to lift his arm above his head that he might strike the better, he heard the man who had been flung against him incoherently babbling English.

"Don't fall," cried Trench, and he caught his fellow-captive by the arm. "Ibrahim, help! God, if he were to fall!" and while the crowd swayed again and the shrill cries and curses rose again, deafening the ears, piercing the brain, Trench supported his companion, and bending down his head caught again after so many months the accent of his own tongue. And the sound of it civilised him like the friendship of a woman.

He could not hear what was said; the din was too loud. But he caught, as it were, shadows of words which had once been familiar to him, which had been spoken to him, which he had spoken to others—as a matter of course. In the House of Stone they sounded most wonderful. They had a magic, too. Meadows of grass, cool skies, and limpid rivers rose in grey quiet pictures before his mind. For a moment he was insensible to his parched throat, to the stench of that prison house, to the oppressive blackness. But he felt the man whom he supported totter and slip, and again he cried to Ibrahim:—

"If he were to fall!"

Ibrahim helped as only he could. Together they fought and wrestled until those about them yielded, crying:—

"Shaitan! They are mad!"

They cleared a space in that corner and, setting the Englishman down upon the ground, they stood in front of him lest he should be trampled. And behind him upon the ground Trench heard every now and then in a lull of the noise the babble of English.

"He will die before morning," he cried to Ibrahim, "he is in a fever!"

"Sit beside him," said the Hadendoa. "I can keep them back."

Trench stooped and squatted in the corner, Ibrahim set his legs well apart and guarded Trench and his new friend.

Bending his head, Trench could now hear the words. They were the words of a man in delirium, spoken in a voice of great pleading. He was telling some tale of the sea, it seemed.

"I saw the riding lights of the yachts—and the reflections shortening and lengthening as the water rippled—there was a band, too, as we passed the pier-head. What was it playing? Not the overture—and I don't think that I remember any other tune...." And he laughed with a crazy chuckle. "I was always pretty bad at appreciating music, wasn't I? except when you played," and again he came back to the sea. "There was the line of hills upon the right as the boat steamed out of the bay—you remember there were woods on the hillside—perhaps you have forgotten. Then came Bray, a little fairyland of lights close down by the water at the point of the ridge ... you remember Bray, we lunched there once or twice, just you and I, before everything was settled ... it seemed strange to be steaming out of Dublin Bay and leaving you a long way off to the north among the hills ... strange and somehow not quite right ... for that was the word you used when the morning came behind the blinds—it is not right that one should suffer so much pain ... the engines didn't stop, though, they just kept throbbing and revolving and clanking as though nothing had happened whatever ... one felt a little angry about that ... the fairyland was already only a sort of golden blot behind ... and then nothing but sea and the salt wind ... and the things to be done."

The man in his delirium suddenly lifted himself upon an elbow, and with the other hand fumbled in his breast as though he searched for something. "Yes, the things to be done," he repeated in a mumbling voice, and he sank to unintelligible whisperings, with his head fallen upon his breast.

Trench put an arm about him and raised him up. But he could do nothing more, and even to him, crouched as he was close to the ground, the noisome heat was almost beyond endurance. In front, the din of shrill voices, the screams for pity, the swaying and struggling, went on in that appalling darkness. In one corner there were men singing in a mad frenzy, in another a few danced in their fetters, or rather tried to dance; in front of Trench Ibrahim maintained his guard; and beside Trench there lay in the House of Stone, in the town beyond the world, a man who one night had sailed out of Dublin Bay, past the riding lanterns of the yachts, and had seen Bray, that fairyland of lights, dwindle to a golden blot. To think of the sea and the salt wind, the sparkle of light as the water split at the ship's bows, the illuminated deck, perhaps the sound of a bell telling the hour, and the cool dim night about and above, so wrought upon Trench that, practical unimaginative creature as he was, for very yearning he could have wept. But the stranger at his side began to speak again.

"It is funny that those three faces were always the same ... the man in the tent with the lancet in his hand, and the man in the back room off Piccadilly ... and mine. Funny and not quite right. No, I don't think that was quite right either. They get quite big, too, just when you are going to sleep in the dark—quite big, and they come very close to you and won't go away ... they rather frighten one...." And he suddenly clung to Trench with a close, nervous grip, like a boy in an extremity of fear. And it was in the tone of reassurance that a man might use to a boy that Trench replied, "It's all right, old man, it's all right."

But Trench's companion was already relieved of his fear. He had come out of his boyhood, and was rehearsing some interview which was to take place in the future.

"Will you take it back?" he asked, with a great deal of hesitation and timidity. "Really? The others have, all except the man who died at Tamai. And you will too!" He spoke as though he could hardly believe some piece of great good fortune which had befallen him. Then his voice changed to that of a man belittling his misfortunes. "Oh, it hasn't been the best of times, of course. But then one didn't expect the best of times. And at the worst, one had always the afterwards to look forward to ... supposing one didn't run.... I'm not sure that when the whole thing's balanced, it won't come out that you have really had the worst time. I know you ... it would hurt you through and through, pride and heart and everything, and for a long time just as much as it hurt that morning when the daylight came through the blinds. And you couldn't do anything! And you hadn't the afterwards to help you—you weren't looking forward to it all the time as I was ... it was all over and done with for you ..." and he lapsed again into mutterings.

Colonel Trench's delight in the sound of his native tongue had now given place to a great curiosity as to the man who spoke and what he said. Trench had described himself a long while ago as he stood opposite the cab-stand in the southwest corner of St. James's Square: "I am an inquisitive, methodical person," he had said, and he had not described himself amiss. Here was a life history, it seemed, being unfolded to his ears, and not the happiest of histories, perhaps, indeed, with something of tragedy at the heart of it. Trench began to speculate upon the meaning of that word "afterwards," which came and went among the words like the motif in a piece of music and very likely was the life motif of the man who spoke them.

In the prison the heat became stifling, the darkness more oppressive, but the cries and shouts were dying down; their volume was less great, their intonation less shrill; stupor and fatigue and exhaustion were having their effect. Trench bent his head again to his companion and now heard more clearly.

"I saw your light that morning ... you put it out suddenly ... did you hear my step on the gravel?... I thought you did, it hurt rather," and then he broke out into an emphatic protest. "No, no, I had no idea that you would wait. I had no wish that you should. Afterwards, perhaps, I thought, but nothing more, upon my word. Sutch was quite wrong.... Of course there was always the chance that one might come to grief oneself—get killed, you know, or fall ill and die—before one asked you to take your feather back; and then there wouldn't even have been a chance of the afterwards. But that is the risk one had to take."

The allusion was not direct enough for Colonel Trench's comprehension. He heard the word "feather," but he could not connect it as yet with any action of his own. He was more curious than ever about that "afterwards"; he began to have a glimmering of its meaning, and he was struck with wonderment at the thought of how many men there were going about the world with a calm and commonplace demeanour beneath which were hidden quaint fancies and poetic beliefs, never to be so much as suspected, until illness deprived the brain of its control.

"No, one of the reasons why I never said anything that night to you about what I intended was, I think, that I did not wish you to wait or have any suspicion of what I was going to attempt." And then expostulation ceased, and he began to speak in a tone of interest. "Do you know, it has only occurred to me since I came to the Soudan, but I believe that Durrance cared."

The name came with something of a shock upon Trench's ears. This man knew Durrance! He was not merely a stranger of Trench's blood, but he knew Durrance even as Trench knew him. There was a link between them, they had a friend in common. He knew Durrance, had fought in the same square with him, perhaps, at Tokar, or Tamai, or Tamanieb, just as Trench had done! And so Trench's curiosity as to the life history in its turn gave place to a curiosity as to the identity of the man. He tried to see, knowing that in that black and noisome hovel sight was impossible. He might hear, though, enough to be assured. For if the stranger knew Durrance, it might be that he knew Trench as well. Trench listened; the sound of the voice, high pitched and rambling, told him nothing. He waited for the words, and the words came.

"Durrance stood at the window, after I had told them about you, Ethne," and Trench repeated the name to himself. It was to a woman, then, that his new-found compatriot, this friend of Durrance, in his delirium imagined himself to be speaking—a woman named Ethne. Trench could recall no such name; but the voice in the dark went on.

"All the time when I was proposing to send in my papers, after the telegram had come, he stood at the window of my rooms with his back to me, looking out across the park. I fancied he blamed me. But I think now he was making up his mind to lose you.... I wonder."

Trench uttered so startled an exclamation that Ibrahim turned round.

"Is he dead?"

"No, he lives, he lives."

It was impossible, Trench argued. He remembered quite clearly Durrance standing by a window with his back to the room. He remembered a telegram coming which took a long while in the reading—which diffused among all except Durrance an inexplicable suspense. He remembered, too, a man who spoke of his betrothal and of sending in his papers. But surely this could not be the man. Was the woman's name Ethne? A woman of Donegal—yes; and this man had spoken of sailing out of Dublin Bay—he had spoken, too, of a feather.

"Good God!" whispered Trench. "Was the name Ethne? Was it? Was it?"

But for a while he received no answer. He heard only talk of a mud-walled city, and an intolerable sun burning upon a wide round of desert, and a man who lay there all the day with his linen robe drawn over his head, and slowly drew one face towards him across three thousand miles, until at sunset it was near, and he took courage and went down into the gate. And after that, four words stabbed Trench.

"Three little white feathers," were the words. Trench leaned back against the wall. It was he who had devised that message. "Three little white feathers," the voice repeated. "This afternoon we were under the elms down by the Lennon River—do you remember, Harry?—just you and I. And then came three little white feathers; and the world's at an end."

Trench had no longer any doubts. The man was quoting words, and words, no doubt, spoken by this girl Ethne on the night when the three feathers came. "Harry," she had said. "Do you remember, Harry?" Trench was certain.

"Feversham!" he cried. "Feversham!" And he shook the man whom he held in his arms and called to him again. "Under the elms by the Lennon River—" Visions of green shade touched with gold, and of the sunlight flickering between the leaves, caught at Trench and drew him like a mirage in that desert of which Feversham had spoken. Feversham had been under the elms of the Lennon River on that afternoon before the feathers came, and he was in the House of Stone at Omdurman. But why? Trench asked himself the question and was not spared the answer.

"Willoughby took his feather back"—and upon that Feversham broke off. His voice rambled. He seemed to be running somewhere amid sandhills which continually shifted and danced about him as he ran, so that he could not tell which way he went. He was in the last stage of fatigue, too, so that his voice in his delirium became querulous and weak. "Abou Fatma!" he cried, and the cry was the cry of a man whose throat is parched, and whose limbs fail beneath him. "Abou Fatma! Abou Fatma!" He stumbled as he ran, picked himself up, ran and stumbled again; and about him the deep soft sand piled itself into pyramids, built itself into long slopes and ridges, and levelled itself flat with an extraordinary and a malicious rapidity. "Abou Fatma!" cried Feversham, and he began to argue in a weak obstinate voice. "I know the wells are here—close by—within half a mile. I know they are—I know they are."

The clue to that speech Trench had not got. He knew nothing of Feversham's adventure at Berber; he could not tell that the wells were the Wells of Obak, or that Feversham, tired with the hurry of his travelling, and after a long day's march without water, had lost his way among the shifting sandhills. But he did know that Willoughby had taken back his feather, and he made a guess as to the motive which had brought Feversham now to the House of Stone. Even on that point, however, he was not to remain in doubt; for in a while he heard his own name upon Feversham's lips.

Remorse seized upon Colonel Trench. The sending of the feathers had been his invention and his alone. He could not thrust the responsibility of his invention upon either Willoughby or Castleton; it was just his doing. He had thought it rather a shrewd and clever stroke, he remembered at the time—a vengeance eminently just. Eminently just, no doubt, it was, but he had not thought of the woman. He had not imagined that she might be present when the feathers came. He had indeed almost forgotten the episode, he had never speculated upon the consequences, and now they rose up and smote the smiter.

And his remorse was to grow. For the night was not nearly at its end. All through the dark slow hours he supported Feversham and heard him talk. Now Feversham was lurking in the bazaar at Suakin and during the siege.

"During the siege," thought Trench. "While we were there, then, he was herding with the camel-drivers in the bazaar learning their tongues, watching for his chance. Three years of it!"

At another moment Feversham was slinking up the Nile to Wadi Halfa with a zither, in the company of some itinerant musicians, hiding from any who might remember him and accuse him with his name. Trench heard of a man slipping out from Wadi Halfa, crossing the Nile and wandering with the assumed manner of a lunatic southwards, starving and waterless, until one day he was snapped up by a Mahdist caravan and dragged to Dongola as a spy. And at Dongola things had happened of which the mere mention made Trench shake. He heard of leather cords which had been bound about the prisoner's wrists, and upon which water had been poured until the cords swelled and the wrists burst, but this was among the minor brutalities. Trench waited for the morning as he listened, wondering whether indeed it would ever come.

He heard the bolts dragged back at the last; he saw the door open and the good daylight. He stood up and with Ibrahim's help protected this new comrade until the eager rush was past. Then he supported him out into the zareeba. Worn, wasted in body and face, with a rough beard straggled upon his chin, and his eyes all sunk and very bright, it was still Harry Feversham. Trench laid him down in a corner of the zareeba where there would be shade; and in a few hours shade would be needed. Then with the rest he scrambled to the Nile for water and brought it back. As he poured it down Feversham's throat, Feversham seemed for a moment to recognise him. But it was only for a moment, and the incoherent tale of his adventures began again. Thus, after five years, and for the first time since Trench had dined as Feversham's guest in the high rooms overlooking St. James's Park, the two men met in the House of Stone.