There were four men smoking about the dinner-table. Harry Feversham was unchanged, except for a fair moustache, which contrasted with his dark hair, and the natural consequences of growth. He was now a man of middle height, long-limbed, and well-knit like an athlete, but his features had not altered since that night when they had been so closely scrutinised by Lieutenant Sutch. Of his companions two were brother-officers on leave in England, like himself, whom he had that afternoon picked up at his club: Captain Trench, a small man, growing bald, with a small, sharp, resourceful face and black eyes of a remarkable activity, and Lieutenant Willoughby, an officer of quite a different stamp. A round forehead, a thick snub nose, and a pair of vacant and protruding eyes gave to him an aspect of invincible stupidity. He spoke but seldom, and never to the point, but rather to some point long forgotten which he had since been laboriously revolving in his mind; and he continually twisted a moustache, of which the ends curled up toward his eyes with a ridiculous ferocity, a man whom one would dismiss from mind as of no consequence upon a first thought, and take again into one’s consideration upon a second. For he was born stubborn as well as stupid; and the harm which his stupidity might do, his stubbornness would hinder him from admitting. He was not a man to be persuaded; having few ideas, he clung to them. It was no use to argue with him, for he did not hear the argument, but behind his vacant eyes all the while he turned over his crippled thoughts and was satisfied. The fourth at the table was Durrance, a lieutenant of the East Surrey Regiment, and Feversham’s friend, who had come in answer to a telegram.
This was June of the year 1882, and the thoughts of civilians turned toward Egypt with anxiety; those of soldiers, with an eager anticipation. Arabi Pasha, in spite of threats, was steadily strengthening the fortifications of Alexandria, and already a long way to the south, the other, the great danger, was swelling like a thunder-cloud. A year had passed since a young, slight, and tall Dongolawi, Mohammed Ahmed, had marched through the villages of the White Nile, preaching with the fire of a Wesley the coming of a Saviour. The passionate victims of the Turkish tax-gatherer had listened, had heard the promise repeated in the whispers of the wind in the withered grass, had found the holy names imprinted even upon the eggs they gathered up. In 1882 Mohammed had declared himself that Saviour, and had won his first battles against the Turks.
“There will be trouble,” said Trench, and the sentence was the text on which three of the four men talked. In a rare interval, however, the fourth, Harry Feversham, spoke upon a different subject.
“I am very glad you were all able to dine with me to-night. I telegraphed to Castleton as well, an officer of ours,” he explained to Durrance, “but he was dining with a big man in the War Office, and leaves for Scotland afterwards, so that he could not come. I have news of a sort.”
The three men leaned forward, their minds still full of the dominant subject. But it was not about the prospect of war that Harry Feversham had news to speak.
“I only reached London this morning from Dublin,” he said with a shade of embarrassment. “I have been some weeks in Dublin.”
Durrance lifted his eyes from the tablecloth and looked quietly at his friend.
“Yes?” he asked steadily.
“I have come back engaged to be married.”
Durrance lifted his glass to his lips.
“Well, here’s luck to you, Harry,” he said, and that was all. The wish, indeed, was almost curtly expressed, but there was nothing wanting in it to Feversham’s ears. The friendship between these two men was not one in which affectionate phrases had any part. There was, in truth, no need of such. Both men were securely conscious of it; they estimated it at its true, strong value; it was a helpful instrument, which would not wear out, put into their hands for a hard, lifelong use; but it was not, and never had been, spoken of between them. Both men were grateful for it, as for a rare and undeserved gift; yet both knew that it might entail an obligation of sacrifice. But the sacrifices, were they needful, would be made, and they would not be mentioned. It may be, indeed, that the very knowledge of their friendship’s strength constrained them to a particular reticence in their words to one another.
“Thank you, Jack!” said Feversham. “I am glad of your good wishes. It was you who introduced me to Ethne; I cannot forget it.”
Durrance set his glass down without any haste. There followed a moment of silence, during which he sat with his eyes upon the tablecloth, and his hands resting on the table edge.
“Yes,” he said in a level voice. “I did you a good turn then.”
He seemed on the point of saying more, and doubtful how to say it. But Captain Trench’s sharp, quick, practical voice, a voice which fitted the man who spoke, saved him his pains.
“Will this make any difference?” asked Trench.
Feversham replaced his cigar between his lips.
“You mean, shall I leave the service?” he asked slowly. “I don’t know,” and Durrance seized the opportunity to rise from the table and cross to the window, where he stood with his back to his companions. Feversham took the abrupt movement for a reproach, and spoke to Durrance’s back, not to Trench.
“I don’t know,” he repeated. “It will need thought. There is much to be said. On the one side, of course, there’s my father, my career, such as it is. On the other hand, there is her father, Dermod Eustace.”
“He wishes you to chuck your commission?” asked Willoughby.
“He has no doubt the Irishman’s objection to constituted authority,” said Trench, with a laugh. “But need you subscribe to it, Feversham?”
“It is not merely that.” It was still to Durrance’s back that he addressed his excuses. “Dermod is old, his estates are going to ruin, and there are other things. You know, Jack?” The direct appeal he had to repeat, and even then Durrance answered it absently:
“Yes, I know,” and he added, like one quoting a catch-word. “If you want any whiskey, rap twice on the floor with your foot. The servants understand.”
“Precisely,” said Feversham. He continued, carefully weighing his words, and still intently looking across the shoulders of his companions to his friend:
“Besides, there is Ethne herself. Dermod for once did an appropriate thing when he gave her that name. For she is of her country, and more, of her county. She has the love of it in her bones. I do not think that she could be quite happy in India, or indeed in any place which was not within reach of Donegal, the smell of its peat, its streams, and the brown friendliness of its hills. One has to consider that.”
He waited for an answer, and getting none went on again. Durrance, however, had no thought of reproach in his mind. He knew that Feversham was speaking—he wished very much that he would continue to speak for a little while—but he paid no heed to what was said. He stood looking steadfastly out of the windows. Over against him was the glare from Pall Mall striking upward to the sky, and the chains of light banked one above the other as the town rose northward, and a rumble as of a million carriages was in his ears. At his feet, very far below, lay St. James’s Park, silent and black, a quiet pool of darkness in the midst of glitter and noise. Durrance had a great desire to escape out of this room into its secrecy. But that he could not do without remark. Therefore he kept his back turned to his companion and leaned his forehead against the window, and hoped his friend would continue to talk. For he was face to face with one of the sacrifices which must not be mentioned, and which no sign must betray.
Feversham did continue, and if Durrance did not listen, on the other hand Captain Trench gave to him his closest attention. But it was evident that Harry Feversham was giving reasons seriously considered. He was not making excuses, and in the end Captain Trench was satisfied.
“Well, I drink to you, Feversham,” he said, “with all the proper sentiments.”
“I too, old man,” said Willoughby, obediently following his senior’s lead.
Thus they drank their comrade’s health, and as their empty glasses rattled on the table, there came a knock upon the door.
The two officers looked up. Durrance turned about from the window. Feversham said, “Come in,” and his servant brought in to him a telegram.
Feversham tore open the envelope carelessly, as carelessly read through the telegram, and then sat very still, with his eyes upon the slip of pink paper and his face grown at once extremely grave. Thus he sat for an appreciable time, not so much stunned as thoughtful. And in the room there was a complete silence. Feversham’s three guests averted their eyes. Durrance turned again to his window; Willoughby twisted his moustache and gazed intently upward at the ceiling; Captain Trench shifted his chair round and stared into the glowing fire, and each man’s attitude expressed a certain suspense. It seemed that sharp upon the heels of Fever-sham’s good news calamity had come knocking at the door.
“There is no answer,” said Harry, and fell to silence again. Once he raised his head and looked at Trench as though he had a mind to speak. But he thought the better of it, and so dropped again to the consideration of his message. And in a moment or two the silence was sharply interrupted, but not by any one of the expectant motionless three men seated within the room. The interruption came from without.
From the parade ground of Wellington Barracks the drums and fifes sounding the tattoo shrilled through the open window with a startling clearness like a sharp summons, and diminished as the band marched away across the gravel and again grew loud. Fever-sham did not change his attitude, but the look upon his face was now that of a man listening, and listening thoughtfully, just as he had read thoughtfully. In the years which followed, that moment was to recur again and again to the recollection of each of Harry’s three guests. The lighted room, with the bright homely fire, the open window overlooking the myriad lamps of London, Harry Feversham seated with the telegram spread before him, the drums and fifes calling loudly, and then dwindling to music very small and pretty—music which beckoned where a moment ago it had commanded: all these details made up a picture of which the colours were not to fade by any lapse of time, although its significance was not apprehended now.
It was remembered that Feversham rose abruptly from his chair, just before the tattoo ceased. He crumpled the telegram loosely in his hands, tossed it into the fire, and then, leaning his back against the chimney-piece and upon one side of the fireplace, said again:
“I don’t know,” as though he had thrust that message, whatever it might be, from his mind, and was summing up in this indefinite way the argument which had gone before. Thus that long silence was broken, and a spell was lifted. But the fire took hold upon the telegram and shook it, so that it moved like a thing alive and in pain. It twisted, and part of it unrolled, and for a second lay open and smooth of creases, lit up by the flame and as yet untouched; so that two or three words sprang, as it were, out of a yellow glare of fire and were legible. Then the flame seized upon that smooth part too, and in a moment shrivelled it into black tatters. But Captain Trench was all this while staring into the fire.
“You return to Dublin, I suppose?” said Durrance. He had moved back again into the room. Like his companions, he was conscious of an unexplained relief.
“To Dublin? No; I go to Donegal in three weeks’ time. There is to be a dance. It is hoped you will come.”
“I am not sure that I can manage it. There is just a chance, I believe, should trouble come in the East, that I may go out on the staff.” The talk thus came round again to the chances of peace and war, and held in that quarter till the boom of the Westminster clock told that the hour was eleven. Captain Trench rose from his seat on the last stroke; Willoughby and Durrance followed his example.
“I shall see you to-morrow,” said Durrance to Feversham.
“As usual,” replied Harry; and his three guests descended from his rooms and walked across the Park together. At the corner of Pall Mall, however, they parted company, Durrance mounting St. James’s Street, while Trench and Willoughby crossed the road into St. James’s Square. There Trench slipped his arm through Willoughby’s, to Willoughby’s surprise, for Trench was an undemonstrative man.
“You know Castleton’s address?” he asked.
“Albemarle Street,” Willoughby answered, and added the number.
“He leaves Euston at twelve o’clock. It is now ten minutes past eleven. Are you curious, Willoughby? I confess to curiosity. I am an inquisitive methodical person, and when a man gets a telegram bidding him tell Trench something and he tells Trench nothing, I am curious as a philosopher to know what that something is! Castleton is the only other officer of our regiment in London. It is likely, therefore, that the telegram came from Castleton. Castleton, too, was dining with a big man from the War Office. I think that if we take a hansom to Albemarle Street, we shall just catch Castleton upon his doorstep.”
Mr. Willoughby, who understood very little of Trench’s meaning, nevertheless cordially agreed to the proposal.
“I think it would be prudent,” said he, and he hailed a passing cab. A moment later the two men were driving to Albemarle Street.