The Four Feathers/VI
It was the night of August 30. A month had passed since the ball at Lennon House, but the uneventful country-side of Donegal was still busy with the stimulating topic of Harry Feversham's disappearance. The townsmen in the climbing street and the gentry at their dinner-tables gossiped to their hearts' contentment. It was asserted that Harry Feversham had been seen on the very morning after the dance, and at five minutes to six—though according to Mrs. Brien O'Brien it was ten minutes past the hour—still in his dress clothes and with a white suicide's face, hurrying along the causeway by the Lennon Bridge. It was suggested that a drag-net would be the only way to solve the mystery. Mr. Dennis Rafferty, who lived on the road to Rathmullen, indeed, went so far as to refuse salmon on the plea that he was not a cannibal, and the saying had a general vogue. Their conjectures as to the cause of the disappearance were no nearer to the truth. For there were only two who knew, and those two went steadily about the business of living as though no catastrophe had befallen them. They held their heads a trifle more proudly perhaps. Ethne might have become a little more gentle, Dermod a little more irascible, but these were the only changes. So gossip had the field to itself.
But Harry Feversham was in London, as Lieutenant Sutch discovered on the night of the 30th. All that day the town had been perturbed by rumours of a great battle fought at Kassassin in the desert east of Ismailia. Messengers had raced ceaselessly through the streets, shouting tidings of victory and tidings of disaster. There had been a charge by moonlight of General Drury-Lowe's Cavalry Brigade, which had rolled up Arabi's left flank and captured his guns. It was rumoured that an English general had been killed, that the York and Lancaster Regiment had been cut up. London was uneasy, and at eleven o'clock at night a great crowd of people had gathered beneath the gas-lamps in Pall Mall, watching with pale upturned faces the lighted blinds of the War Office. The crowd was silent and impressively still. Only if a figure moved for an instant across the blinds, a thrill of expectation passed from man to man, and the crowd swayed in a continuous movement from edge to edge. Lieutenant Sutch, careful of his wounded leg, was standing on the outskirts, with his back to the parapet of the Junior Carlton Club, when he felt himself touched upon the arm. He saw Harry Feversham at his side. Feversham's face was working and extraordinarily white, his eyes were bright like the eyes of a man in a fever; and Sutch at the first was not sure that he knew or cared who it was to whom he talked.
"I might have been out there in Egypt to-night," said Harry, in a quick troubled voice. "Think of it! I might have been out there, sitting by a camp-fire in the desert, talking over the battle with Jack Durrance; or dead perhaps. What would it have mattered? I might have been in Egypt to-night!"
Feversham's unexpected appearance, no less than his wandering tongue, told Sutch that somehow his fortunes had gone seriously wrong. He had many questions in his mind, but he did not ask a single one of them. He took Feversham's arm and led him straight out of the throng.
"I saw you in the crowd," continued Feversham. "I thought that I would speak to you, because—do you remember, a long time ago you gave me your card? I have always kept it, because I have always feared that I would have reason to use it. You said that if one was in trouble, the telling might help."
Sutch stopped his companion.
"We will go in here. We can find a quiet corner in the upper smoking-room;" and Harry, looking up, saw that he was standing by the steps of the Army and Navy Club.
"Good God, not there!" he cried in a sharp low voice, and moved quickly into the roadway, where no light fell directly on his face. Sutch limped after him. "Nor to-night. It is late. To-morrow if you will, in some quiet place, and after nightfall. I do not go out in the daylight."
Again Lieutenant Sutch asked no questions.
"I know a quiet restaurant," he said. "If we dine there at nine, we shall meet no one whom we know. I will meet you just before nine to-morrow night at the corner of Swallow Street."
They dined together accordingly on the following evening, at a table in the corner of the Criterion grill-room. Feversham looked quickly about him as he entered the room.
"I dine here often when I am in town," said Sutch. "Listen!" The throbbing of the engines working the electric light could be distinctly heard, their vibrations could be felt.
"It reminds me of a ship," said Sutch, with a smile. "I can almost fancy myself in the gun-room again. We will have dinner. Then you shall tell me your story."
"You have heard nothing of it?" asked Feversham, suspiciously.
"Not a word;" and Feversham drew a breath of relief. It had seemed to him that every one must know. He imagined contempt on every face which passed him in the street.
Lieutenant Sutch was even more concerned this evening than he had been the night before. He saw Harry Feversham clearly now in a full light. Harry's face was thin and haggard with lack of sleep, there were black hollows beneath his eyes; he drew his breath and made his movements in a restless feverish fashion, his nerves seemed strung to breaking-point. Once or twice between the courses he began his story, but Sutch would not listen until the cloth was cleared.
"Now," said he, holding out his cigar-case. "Take your time, Harry."
Thereupon Feversham told him the whole truth, without exaggeration or omission, forcing himself to a slow, careful, matter-of-fact speech, so that in the end Sutch almost fell into the illusion that it was just the story of a stranger which Feversham was recounting merely to pass the time. He began with the Crimean night at Broad Place, and ended with the ball at Lennon House.
"I came back across Lough Swilly early that morning," he said in conclusion, "and travelled at once to London. Since then I have stayed in my rooms all day, listening to the bugles calling in the barrack-yard beneath my windows. At night I prowl about the streets or lie in bed waiting for the Westminster clock to sound each new quarter of an hour. On foggy nights, too, I can hear steam-sirens on the river. Do you know when the ducks start quacking in St. James's Park?" he asked with a laugh. "At two o'clock to the minute."
Sutch listened to the story without an interruption. But halfway through the narrative he changed his attitude, and in a significant way. Up to the moment when Harry told of his concealment of the telegram, Sutch had sat with his arms upon the table in front of him, and his eyes upon his companion. Thereafter he raised a hand to his forehead, and so remained with his face screened while the rest was told. Feversham had no doubt of the reason. Lieutenant Sutch wished to conceal the scorn he felt, and could not trust the muscles of his face. Feversham, however, mitigated nothing, but continued steadily and truthfully to the end. But even after the end was reached, Sutch did not remove his hand, nor for some little while did he speak. When he did speak, his words came upon Feversham's ears with a shock of surprise. There was no contempt in them, and though his voice shook, it shook with a great contrition.
"I am much to blame," he said. "I should have spoken that night at Broad Place, and I held my tongue. I shall hardly forgive myself." The knowledge that it was Muriel Graham's son who had thus brought ruin and disgrace upon himself was uppermost in the lieutenant's mind. He felt that he had failed in the discharge of an obligation, self-imposed, no doubt, but a very real obligation none the less. "You see, I understood," he continued remorsefully. "Your father, I am afraid, never would."
"He never will," interrupted Harry.
"No," Sutch agreed. "Your mother, of course, had she lived, would have seen clearly; but few women, I think, except your mother. Brute courage! Women make a god of it. That girl, for instance,"—and again Harry Feversham interrupted.
"You must not blame her. I was defrauding her into marriage."
Sutch took his hand suddenly from his forehead.
"Suppose that you had never met her, would you still have sent in your papers?"
"I think not," said Harry, slowly. "I want to be fair. Disgracing my name and those dead men in the hall I think I would have risked. I could not risk disgracing her."
And Lieutenant Sutch thumped his fist despairingly upon the table. "If only I had spoken at Broad Place. Harry, why didn't you let me speak? I might have saved you many unnecessary years of torture. Good heavens! what a childhood you must have spent with that fear all alone with you. It makes me shiver to think of it. I might even have saved you from this last catastrophe. For I understood. I understood."
Lieutenant Sutch saw more clearly into the dark places of Harry Feversham's mind than Harry Feversham did himself; and because he saw so clearly, he could feel no contempt. The long years of childhood, and boyhood, and youth, lived apart in Broad Place in the presence of the uncomprehending father and the relentless dead men on the walls, had done the harm. There had been no one in whom the boy could confide. The fear of cowardice had sapped incessantly at his heart. He had walked about with it; he had taken it with him to his bed. It had haunted his dreams. It had been his perpetual menacing companion. It had kept him from intimacy with his friends lest an impulsive word should betray him. Lieutenant Sutch did not wonder that in the end it had brought about this irretrievable mistake; for Lieutenant Sutch understood.
"Did you ever read 'Hamlet'?" he asked.
"Of course," said Harry, in reply.
"Ah, but did you consider it? The same disability is clear in that character. The thing which he foresaw, which he thought over, which he imagined in the act and in the consequence—that he shrank from, upbraiding himself even as you have done. Yet when the moment of action comes, sharp and immediate, does he fail? No, he excels, and just by reason of that foresight. I have seen men in the Crimea, tortured by their imaginations before the fight—once the fight had begun you must search amongst the Oriental fanatics for their match. 'Am I a coward?' Do you remember the lines?
Am I a coward? Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
There's the case in a nutshell. If only I had spoken on that night!"
One or two people passed the table on the way out. Sutch stopped and looked round the room. It was nearly empty. He glanced at his watch and saw that the hour was eleven. Some plan of action must be decided upon that night. It was not enough to hear Harry Feversham's story. There still remained the question, what was Harry Feversham, disgraced and ruined, now to do? How was he to re-create his life? How was the secret of his disgrace to be most easily concealed?
"You cannot stay in London, hiding by day, slinking about by night," he said with a shiver. "That's too like—" and he checked himself. Feversham, however, completed the sentence.
"That's too like Wilmington," said he, quietly, recalling the story which his father had told so many years ago, and which he had never forgotten, even for a single day. "But Wilmington's end will not be mine. Of that I can assure you. I shall not stay in London."
He spoke with an air of decision. He had indeed mapped out already the plan of action concerning which Lieutenant Sutch was so disturbed. Sutch, however, was occupied with his own thoughts.
"Who knows of the feathers? How many people?" he asked. "Give me their names."
"Trench, Castleton, Willoughby," began Feversham.
"All three are in Egypt. Besides, for the credit of their regiment they are likely to hold their tongues when they return. Who else?"
"Dermod Eustace and—and—Ethne."
"They will not speak."
"You, Durrance perhaps, and my father."
Sutch leaned back in his chair and stared.
"Your father! You wrote to him?"
"No; I went into Surrey and told him."
Again remorse for that occasion, recognised and not used, seized upon Lieutenant Sutch.
"Why didn't I speak that night?" he said impotently. "A coward, and you go quietly down to Surrey and confront your father with that story to tell to him! You do not even write! You stand up and tell it to him face to face! Harry, I reckon myself as good as another when it comes to bravery, but for the life of me I could not have done that."
"It was not—pleasant," said Feversham, simply; and this was the only description of the interview between father and son which was vouchsafed to any one. But Lieutenant Sutch knew the father and knew the son. He could guess at all which that one adjective implied. Harry Feversham told the results of his journey into Surrey.
"My father continues my allowance. I shall need it, every penny of it—otherwise I should have taken nothing. But I am not to go home again. I did not mean to go home for a long while in any case, if at all."
He drew his pocket-book from his breast, and took from it the four white feathers. These he laid before him on the table.
"You have kept them?" exclaimed Sutch.
"Indeed, I treasure them," said Harry, quietly. "That seems strange to you. To you they are the symbols of my disgrace. To me they are much more. They are my opportunities of retrieving it." He looked about the room, separated three of the feathers, pushed them forward a little on the tablecloth, and then leaned across toward Sutch.
"What if I could compel Trench, Castleton, and Willoughby to take back from me, each in his turn, the feather he sent? I do not say that it is likely. I do not say even that it is possible. But there is a chance that it may be possible, and I must wait upon that chance. There will be few men leading active lives as these three do who will not at some moment stand in great peril and great need. To be in readiness for that moment is from now my career. All three are in Egypt. I leave for Egypt to-morrow."
Upon the face of Lieutenant Sutch there came a look of great and unexpected happiness. Here was an issue of which he had never thought; and it was the only issue, as he knew for certain, once he was aware of it. This student of human nature disregarded without a scruple the prudence and the calculation proper to the character which he assumed. The obstacles in Harry Feversham's way, the possibility that at the last moment he might shrink again, the improbability that three such opportunities would occur—these matters he overlooked. His eyes already shone with pride; the three feathers for him were already taken back. The prudence was on Harry Feversham's side.
"There are endless difficulties," he said. "Just to cite one: I am a civilian, these three are soldiers, surrounded by soldiers; so much the less opportunity therefore for a civilian."
"But it is not necessary that the three men should be themselves in peril," objected Sutch, "for you to convince them that the fault is retrieved."
"Oh, no. There may be other ways," agreed Feversham. "The plan came suddenly into my mind, indeed at the moment when Ethne bade me take up the feathers, and added the fourth. I was on the point of tearing them across when this way out of it sprang clearly up in my mind. But I have thought it over since during these last weeks while I sat listening to the bugles in the barrack-yard. And I am sure there is no other way. But it is well worth trying. You see, if the three take back their feathers,"—he drew a deep breath, and in a very low voice, with his eyes upon the table so that his face was hidden from Sutch, he added—"why, then she perhaps might take hers back too."
"Will she wait, do you think?" asked Sutch; and Harry raised his head quickly.
"Oh, no," he exclaimed, "I had no thought of that. She has not even a suspicion of what I intend to do. Nor do I wish her to have one until the intention is fulfilled. My thought was different"—and he began to speak with hesitation for the first time in the course of that evening. "I find it difficult to tell you—Ethne said something to me the day before the feathers came—something rather sacred. I think that I will tell you, because what she said is just what sends me out upon this errand. But for her words, I would very likely never have thought of it. I find in them my motive and a great hope. They may seem strange to you, Mr. Sutch; but I ask you to believe that they are very real to me. She said—it was when she knew no more than that my regiment was ordered to Egypt—she was blaming herself because I had resigned my commission, for which there was no need, because—and these were her words—because had I fallen, although she would have felt lonely all her life, she would none the less have surely known that she and I would see much of one another—afterwards."
Feversham had spoken his words with difficulty, not looking at his companion, and he continued with his eyes still averted:—
"Do you understand? I have a hope that if—this fault can be repaired,"—and he pointed to the feathers,—"we might still, perhaps, see something of one another—afterwards."
It was a strange proposition, no doubt, to be debated across the soiled tablecloth of a public restaurant, but neither of them felt it to be strange or even fanciful. They were dealing with the simple serious issues, and they had reached a point where they could not be affected by any incongruity in their surroundings. Lieutenant Sutch did not speak for some while after Harry Feversham had done, and in the end Harry looked up at his companion, prepared for almost a word of ridicule; but he saw Sutch's right hand outstretched towards him.
"When I come back," said Feversham, and he rose from his chair. He gathered the feathers together and replaced them in his pocket-book.
"I have told you everything," he said. "You see, I wait upon chance opportunities; the three may not come in Egypt. They may never come at all, and in that case I shall not come back at all. Or they may come only at the very end and after many years. Therefore I thought that I would like just one person to know the truth thoroughly in case I do not come back. If you hear definitely that I never can come back, I would be glad if you would tell my father."
"I understand," said Sutch.
"But don't tell him everything—I mean, not the last part, not what I have just said about Ethne and my chief motive, for I do not think that he would understand. Otherwise you will keep silence altogether. Promise!"
Lieutenant Sutch promised, but with an absent face, and Feversham consequently insisted.
"You will breathe no word of this to man or woman, however hard you may be pressed, except to my father under the circumstances which I have explained," said Feversham.
Lieutenant Sutch promised a second time and without an instant's hesitation. It was quite natural that Harry should lay some stress upon the pledge, since any disclosure of his purpose might very well wear the appearance of a foolish boast, and Sutch himself saw no reason why he should refuse it. So he gave the promise and fettered his hands. His thoughts, indeed, were occupied with the limit Harry had set upon the knowledge which was to be imparted to General Feversham. Even if he died with his mission unfulfilled, Sutch was to hide from the father that which was best in the son, at the son's request. And the saddest part of it, to Sutch's thinking, was that the son was right in so requesting. For what he said was true—the father could not understand. Lieutenant Sutch was brought back to the causes of the whole miserable business: the premature death of the mother, who could have understood; the want of comprehension in the father, who was left; and his own silence on the Crimean night at Broad Place.
"If only I had spoken," he said sadly. He dropped the end of his cigar into his coffee-cup, and standing up, reached for his hat. "Many things are irrevocable, Harry," he said, "but one never knows whether they are irrevocable or not until one has found out. It is always worth while finding out."
The next evening Feversham crossed to Calais. It was a night as wild as that on which Durrance had left England; and, like Durrance, Feversham had a friend to see him off, for the last thing which his eyes beheld as the packet swung away from the pier, was the face of Lieutenant Sutch beneath a gas-lamp. The lieutenant maintained his position after the boat had passed into the darkness and until the throb of its paddles could no longer be heard. Then he limped through the rain to his hotel, aware, and regretfully aware, that he was growing old. It was long since he had felt regret on that account, and the feeling was very strange to him. Ever since the Crimea he had been upon the world's half-pay list, as he had once said to General Feversham, and what with that and the recollection of a certain magical season before the Crimea, he had looked forward to old age as an approaching friend. To-night, however, he prayed that he might live just long enough to welcome back Muriel Graham's son with his honour redeemed and his great fault atoned.