“You are surprised to see me,” said she, noting the look upon his face.
“I always am,” he replied. “For always you exceed my thoughts of you,” and the smile changed upon her face—it became something more than the smile of a comrade.
“I shall drive slowly,” she said, as soon as his traps had been packed into the cart; “I brought no groom on purpose. There will be guests coming to-morrow. We have only to-day.”
She drove along the wide causeway by the riverside, and turned up the steep, narrow street. Feversham sat silently by her side. It was his first visit to Ramelton, and he gazed about him, noting the dark thicket of tall trees which climbed on the far side of the river, the old grey bridge, the noise of the water above it as it sang over shallows, and the drowsy quiet of the town, with a great curiosity and almost a pride of ownership, since it was here that Ethne lived, and all these things were part and parcel of her life.
She was at that time a girl of twenty-one, tall, strong, and supple of limb, and with a squareness of shoulder proportionate to her height. She had none of that exaggerated slope which our grandmothers esteemed, yet she lacked no grace of womanhood on that account, and in her walk she was light-footed as a deer. Her hair was dark brown, and she wore it coiled upon the nape of her neck; a bright colour burned in her cheeks, and her eyes, of a very clear grey, met the eyes of those to whom she talked with a most engaging frankness. And in character she was the counterpart of her looks.
She was honest; she had a certain simplicity, the straightforward simplicity of strength which comprises much gentleness and excludes violence. Of her courage there is a story still told in Ramelton, which Feversham could never remember without a thrill of wonder. She had stopped at a door on that steep hill leading down to the river, and the horse which she was driving took fright at the mere clatter of a pail and bolted. The reins were lying loose at the moment; they fell on the ground before Ethne could seize them. She was thus seated helpless in the dog-cart, and the horse was tearing down to where the road curves sharply over the bridge. The thing which she did, she did quite coolly. She climbed over the front of the dog-cart as it pitched and raced down the hill, and balancing herself along the shafts, reached the reins at the horse’s neck, and brought the horse to a stop ten yards from the curve. But she had, too, the defects of her qualities, although Feversham was not yet aware of them.
Ethne during the first part of this drive was almost as silent as her companion; and when she spoke, it was with an absent air, as though she had something of more importance in her thoughts. It was not until she had left the town and was out upon the straight, undulating road to Letterkenny that she turned quickly to Feversham and uttered it.
“I saw this morning that your regiment was ordered from India to Egypt. You could have gone with it, had I not come in your way. There would have been chances of distinction. I have hindered you, and I am very sorry. Of course, you could not know that there was any possibility of your regiment going, but I can understand it is very hard for you to be left behind. I blame myself.”
Feversham sat staring in front of him for a moment. Then he said, in a voice suddenly grown hoarse:
“You need not.”
“How can I help it? I blame myself the more,” she continued, “because I do not see things quite like other women. For instance, supposing that you had gone to Egypt, and that the worst had happened, I should have felt very lonely, of course, all my days, but I should have known quite surely that when those days were over, you and I would see much of one another.”
She spoke without any impressive lowering of the voice, but in the steady, level tone of one stating the simplest imaginable fact.
Feversham caught his breath like a man in pain. But the girl’s eyes were upon his face, and he sat still, staring in front of him without so much as a contraction of the forehead. But it seemed that he could not trust himself to answer. He kept his lips closed, and Ethne continued:
“You see I can put up with the absence of the people I care about, a little better perhaps than most people. I do not feel that I have lost them at all,” and she cast about for a while as if her thought was difficult to express. “You know how things happen,” she resumed. “One goes along in a dull sort of way, and then suddenly a face springs out from the crowd of one’s acquaintances, and you know it at once and certainly for the face of a friend, or rather you recognise it, though you have never seen it before. It is almost as though you had come upon some one long looked for and now gladly recovered. Well, such friends—they are few, no doubt, but after all only the few really count—such friends one does not lose, whether they are absent, or even—dead.”
“Unless,” said Feversham, slowly, “one has made a mistake. Suppose the face in the crowd is a mask, what then? One may make mistakes.”
Ethne shook her head decidedly.
“Of that kind, no. One may seem to have made mistakes, and perhaps for a long while. But in the end one would be proved not to have made them.”
And the girl’s implicit faith took hold upon the man and tortured him, so that he could no longer keep silence.
“Ethne,” he cried, “you don’t know—” But at that moment Ethne reined in her horse, laughed, and pointed with her whip.
They had come to the top of a hill a couple of miles from Ramel-ton. The road ran between stone walls enclosing open fields upon the left, and a wood of oaks and beeches on the right. A scarlet letter-box was built into the left-hand wall, and at that Ethne’s whip was pointed.
“I wanted to show you that,” she interrupted. “It was there I used to post my letters to you during the anxious times.” And so Feversham let slip his opportunity of speech.
“The house is behind the trees to the right,” she continued.
“The letter-box is very convenient,” said Feversham.
“Yes,” said Ethne, and she drove on and stopped again where the park wall had crumbled.
“That’s where I used to climb over to post the letters. There’s a tree on the other side of the wall as convenient as the letter-box. I used to run down the half-mile of avenue at night.”
“There might have been thieves,” exclaimed Feversham.
“There were thorns,” said Ethne, and turning through the gates she drove up to the porch of the long, irregular grey house. “Well, we have still a day before the dance.”
“I suppose the whole country-side is coming,” said Feversham.
“It daren’t do anything else,” said Ethne, with a laugh. “My father would send the police to fetch them if they stayed away, just as he fetched your friend Mr. Durrance here. By the way, Mr. Durrance has sent me a present—a Guarnerius violin.”
The door opened, and a thin, lank old man, with a fierce peaked face like a bird of prey, came out upon the steps. His face softened, however, into friendliness when he saw Feversham, and a smile played upon his lips. A stranger might have thought that he winked. But his left eyelid continually drooped over the eye.
“How do you do?” he said. “Glad to see you. Must make yourself at home. If you want any whiskey, stamp twice on the floor with your foot. The servants understand,” and with that he went straightway back into the house.
The biographer of Dermod Eustace would need to bring a wary mind to his work. For though the old master of Lennon House has not lain twenty years in his grave, he is already swollen into a legendary character. Anecdotes have grown upon his memory like barnacles, and any man in those parts with a knack of invention has only to foist his stories upon Dermod to ensure a ready credence. There are, however, definite facts. He practised an ancient and tyrannous hospitality, keeping open house upon the road to Letterkenny, and forcing bed and board even upon strangers, as Durrance had once discovered. He was a man of another century, who looked out with a glowering, angry eye upon a topsy-turvy world, and would not be reconciled to it except after much alcohol. He was a sort of intoxicated Coriolanus, believing that the people should be shepherded with a stick, yet always mindful of his manners, even to the lowliest of women. It was said of him with pride by the townsfolk of Ramelton, that even at his worst, when he came galloping down the steep cobbled streets, mounted on a big white mare of seventeen hands, with his inseparable collie dog for his companion,—a gaunt, grey-faced, grey-haired man, with a drooping eye, swaying with drink, yet by a miracle keeping his saddle—he had never ridden down any one except a man. There are two points to be added. He was rather afraid of his daughter, who wisely kept him doubtful whether she was displeased with him or not, and he had conceived a great liking for Harry Feversham.
Harry saw little of him that day, however. Dermod retired into the room which he was pleased to call his office, while Feversham and Ethne spent the afternoon fishing for salmon in the Lennon River. It was an afternoon restful as a Sabbath, and the very birds were still. From the house the lawns fell steeply, shaded by trees and dappled by the sunlight, to a valley, at the bottom of which flowed the river swift and black under overarching boughs. There was a fall, where the water slid over rocks with a smoothness so unbroken that it looked solid except just at one point. There a spur stood sharply up, and the river broke back upon itself in an amber wave through which the sun shone. Opposite this spur they sat for a long while, talking at times, but for the most part listening to the roar of the water and watching its perpetual flow. And at last the sunset came, and the long shadows. They stood up, looked at each other with a smile, and so walked slowly back to the house. It was an afternoon which Feversham was long to remember; for the next night was the night of the dance, and as the band struck up the opening bars of the fourth waltz, Ethne left her position at the drawing-room door, and taking Feversham’s arm passed out into the hall.
The hall was empty, and the front door stood open to the cool of the summer night. From the ballroom came the swaying lilt of the music and the beat of the dancers’ feet. Ethne drew a breath of relief at her reprieve from her duties, and then dropping her partner’s arm, crossed to a side table.
“The post is in,” she said. “There are letters, one, two, three, for you, and a little box.”
She held the box out to him as she spoke—a little white jeweller’s cardboard box—and was at once struck by its absence of weight.
“It must be empty,” she said.
Yet it was most carefully sealed and tied. Feversham broke the seals and unfastened the string. He looked at the address. The box had been forwarded from his lodgings, and he was not familiar with the handwriting.
“There is some mistake,” he said as he shook the lid open, and then he stopped abruptly. Three white feathers fluttered out of the box, swayed and rocked for a moment in the air, and then, one after another, settled gently down upon the floor. They lay like flakes of snow upon the dark polished boards. But they were not whiter than Harry Feversham’s cheeks. He stood and stared at the feathers until he felt a light touch upon his arm. He looked and saw Ethne’s gloved hand upon his sleeve.
“What does it mean?” she asked. There was some perplexity in her voice, but nothing more than perplexity. The smile upon her face and the loyal confidence in her eyes showed she had never a doubt that his first word would lift it from her. “What does it mean?”
“That there are things which cannot be hid, I suppose,” said Feversham.
For a little while Ethne did not speak. The languorous music floated into the hall, and the trees whispered from the garden through the open door. Then she shook his arm gently, uttered a breathless little laugh, and spoke as though she were pleading with a child.
“I don’t think you understand, Harry. Here are three white feathers. They were sent to you in jest? Oh, of course in jest. But it is a cruel kind of jest—”
“They were sent in deadly earnest.”
He spoke now, looking her straight in the eyes. Ethne dropped her hand from his sleeve.
“Who sent them?” she asked.
Feversham had not given a thought to that matter. The message was all in all, the men who had sent it so unimportant. But Ethne reached out her hand and took the box from him. There were three visiting cards lying at the bottom, and she took them out and read them aloud.
“Captain Trench, Mr. Castleton, Mr. Willoughby. Do you know these men?”
“All three are officers of my old regiment.”
The girl was dazed. She knelt down upon the floor and gathered the feathers into her hand with a vague thought that merely to touch them would help her to comprehension. They lay upon the palm of her white glove, and she blew gently upon them, and they swam up into the air and hung fluttering and rocking. As they floated downward she caught them again, and so she slowly felt her way to another question.
“Were they justly sent?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Harry Feversham.
He had no thought of denial or evasion. He was only aware that the dreadful thing for so many years dreadfully anticipated had at last befallen him. He was known for a coward. The word which had long blazed upon the wall of his thoughts in letters of fire was now written large in the public places. He stood as he had once stood before the portraits of his fathers, mutely accepting condemnation. It was the girl who denied, as she still kneeled upon the floor.
“I do not believe that is true,” she said. “You could not look me in the face so steadily were it true. Your eyes would seek the floor, not mine.”
“Yet it is true.”
“Three little white feathers,” she said slowly; and then, with a sob in her throat, “This afternoon we were under the elms down by the Lennon River—do you remember, Harry?—just you and I. And then come three little white feathers, and the world’s at an end.”
“Oh, don’t!” cried Harry, and his voice broke upon the word. Up till now he had spoken with a steadiness matching the steadiness of his eyes. But these last words of hers, the picture which they evoked in his memories, the pathetic simplicity of her utterance, caught him by the heart. But Ethne seemed not to hear the appeal. She was listening with her face turned toward the ballroom. The chatter and laughter of the voices there grew louder and nearer. She understood that the music had ceased. She rose quickly to her feet, clenching the feathers in her hand, and opened a door. It was the door of her sitting-room.
“Come,” she said.
Harry followed her into the room, and she closed the door, shutting out the noise.
“Now,” she said, “will you tell me, if you please, why the feathers have been sent?”
She stood quietly before him; her face was pale, but Feversham could not gather from her expression any feeling which she might have beyond a desire and a determination to get at the truth. She spoke, too, with the same quietude. He answered, as he had answered before, directly and to the point, without any attempt at mitigation.
“A telegram came. It was sent by Castleton. It reached me when Captain Trench and Mr. Willoughby were dining with me. It told me that my regiment would be ordered on active service in Egypt. Castleton was dining with a man likely to know, and I did not question the accuracy of his message. He told me to tell Trench. I did not. I thought the matter over with the telegram in front of me. Castleton was leaving that night for Scotland, and he would go straight from Scotland to rejoin the regiment. He would not, therefore, see Trench for some weeks at the earliest, and by that time the telegram would very likely be forgotten or its date confused. I did not tell Trench. I threw the telegram into the fire, and that night sent in my papers. But Trench found out somehow. Durrance was at dinner, too—good God. Durrance!” he suddenly broke out. “Most likely he knows like the rest.”
It came upon him as something shocking and strangely new that his friend Durrance, who, as he knew very well, had been wont rather to look up to him, in all likelihood counted him a thing of scorn. But he heard Ethne speaking. After all, what did it matter whether Durrance knew, whether every man knew, from the South Pole to the North, since she, Ethne, knew?
“And is this all?” she asked.
“Surely it is enough,” said he.
“I think not,” she answered, and she lowered her voice a little as she went on. “We agreed, didn’t we, that no foolish misunderstandings should ever come between us? We were to be frank, and to take frankness each from the other without offence. So be frank with me! Please!” and she pleaded. “I could, I think, claim it as a right. At all events I ask for it as I shall never ask for anything else in all my life.”
There was a sort of explanation of his act, Harry Feversham remembered; but it was so futile when compared with the overwhelming consequence. Ethne had unclenched her hands; the three feathers lay before his eyes upon the table. They could not be explained away; he wore “coward” like a blind man’s label; besides, he could never make her understand. However, she wished for the explanation and had a right to it; she had been generous in asking for it, with a generosity not very common amongst women. So Feversham gathered his wits and explained:
“All my life I have been afraid that some day I should play the coward, and from the very first I knew that I was destined for the army. I kept my fear to myself. There was no one to whom I could tell it. My mother was dead, and my father—” he stopped for a moment, with a deep intake of the breath. He could see his father, that lonely iron man, sitting at this very moment in his mother’s favourite seat upon the terrace, and looking over the moonlit fields toward the Sussex Downs; he could imagine him dreaming of honours and distinctions worthy of the Fevershams to be gained immediately by his son in the Egyptian campaign. Surely that old man’s stern heart would break beneath this blow. The magnitude of the bad thing which he had done, the misery which it would spread, were becoming very clear to Harry Feversham. He dropped his head between his hands and groaned aloud.
“My father,” he resumed, “would, nay, could, never have understood. I know him. When danger came his way, it found him ready, but he did not foresee. That was my trouble always—I foresaw. Any peril to be encountered, any risk to be run—I foresaw them. I foresaw something else besides. My father would talk in his matter-of-fact way of the hours of waiting before the actual commencement of a battle, after the troops had been paraded. The mere anticipation of the suspense and the strain of those hours was a torture to me. I foresaw the possibility of cowardice. Then one evening, when my father had his old friends about him on one of his Crimean nights, two dreadful stories were told—one of an officer, the other of a surgeon, who had both shirked. I was now confronted with the fact of cowardice. I took those stories up to bed with me. They never left my memory; they became a part of me. I saw myself behaving now as one, now as the other, of those two men had behaved, perhaps in the crisis of a battle bringing ruin upon my country, certainly dishonouring my father and all the dead men whose portraits hung ranged in the hall. I tried to get the best of my fears. I hunted, but with a map of the country-side in my mind. I foresaw every hedge, every pit, every treacherous bank.”
“Yet you rode straight,” interrupted Ethne. “Mr. Durrance told me so.”
“Did I?” said Feversham, vaguely. “Well, perhaps I did, once the hounds were off. Durrance never knew what the moments of waiting before the coverts were drawn meant to me! So when this telegram came, I took the chance it seemed to offer and resigned.”
He ended his explanation. He had spoken warily, having something to conceal. However earnestly she might ask for frankness, he must at all costs, for her sake, hide something from her. But at once she suspected it.
“Were you afraid, too, of disgracing me? Was I in any way the cause that you resigned?”
Feversham looked her in the eyes and lied:
“If you had not been engaged to me, you would still have sent in your papers?”
Ethne slowly stripped a glove off her hand. Feversham turned away.
“I think that I am rather like your father,” she said. “I don’t understand,” and in the silence which followed upon her words Feversham heard something whirr and rattle upon the table. He looked and saw that she had slipped her engagement ring off her finger. It lay upon the table, the stones winking at him.
“And all this—all that you have told to me,” she exclaimed suddenly, with her face very stern, “you would have hidden from me? You would have married me and hidden it, had not these three feathers come?”
The words had been on her lips from the beginning, but she had not uttered them lest by a miracle he should after all have some unimagined explanation which would reestablish him in her thoughts. She had given him every chance. Now, however, she struck and laid bare the worst of his disloyalty. Feversham flinched, and he did not answer but allowed his silence to consent. Ethne, however, was just; she was in a way curious too: she wished to know the very bottom of the matter before she thrust it into the back of her mind.
“But yesterday,” she said, “you were going to tell me something. I stopped you to point out the letter-box,” and she laughed in a queer empty way. “Was it about the feathers?”
“Yes,” answered Feversham, wearily. What did these persistent questions matter, since the feathers had come, since her ring lay flickering and winking on the table? “Yes, I think what you were saying rather compelled me.”
“I remember,” said Ethne, interrupting him rather hastily, “about seeing much of one another—afterwards. We will not speak of such things again,” and Feversham swayed upon his feet as though he would fall. “I remember, too, you said one could make mistakes. You were right; I was wrong. One can do more than seem to make them. Will you, if you please, take back your ring?”
Feversham picked up the ring and held it in the palm of his hand, standing very still. He had never cared for her so much, he had never recognised her value so thoroughly, as at this moment when he lost her. She gleamed in the quiet room, wonderful, most wonderful, from the bright flowers in her hair to the white slipper on her foot. It was incredible to him that he should ever have won her. Yet he had, and disloyalty had lost her. Then her voice broke in again upon his reflections.
“These, too, are yours. Will you take them, please?”
She was pointing with her fan to the feathers upon the table. Feversham obediently reached out his hand, and then drew it back in surprise.
“There are four,” he said.
Ethne did not reply, and looking at her fan Feversham understood. It was a fan of ivory and white feathers. She had broken off one of those feathers and added it on her own account to the three.
The thing which she had done was cruel, no doubt. But she wished to make an end—a complete, irrevocable end; though her voice was steady and her face, despite its pallor, calm, she was really tortured with humiliation and pain. All the details of Harry Feversham’s courtship, the interchange of looks, the letters she had written and received, the words which had been spoken, tingled and smarted unbearably in her recollections. Their lips had touched—she recalled it with horror. She desired never to see Harry Feversham after this night. Therefore she added her fourth feather to the three.
Harry Feversham took the feathers as she bade him, without a word of remonstrance, and indeed with a sort of dignity which even at that moment surprised her. All the time, too, he had kept his eyes steadily upon hers, he had answered her questions simply, there had been nothing abject in his manner; so that Ethne already began to regret this last thing which she had done. However, it was done. Feversham had taken the four feathers.
He held them in his fingers as though he was about to tear them across. But he checked the action. He looked suddenly towards her, and kept his eyes upon her face for some little while. Then very carefully he put the feathers into his breast pocket. Ethne at this time did not consider why. She only thought that here was the irrevocable end.
“We should be going back, I think,” she said. “We have been some time away. Will you give me your arm?” In the hall she looked at the clock. “Only eleven o’clock,” she said wearily. “When we dance here, we dance till daylight. We must show brave faces until daylight.”
And with her hand resting upon his arm, they passed into the ballroom.