“I did not write to Wadi Haifa,” she explained at once, “for I thought that you would be on your way home before my letter could arrive. My father died last month, towards the end of May.”
“I was afraid when I got your letter that you would have this to tell me,” he replied. “I am very sorry. You will miss him.”
“More than I can say,” said she, with a quiet depth of feeling. “He died one morning early—I think I will tell you if you would care to hear,” and she related to him the manner of Dermod’s death, of which a chill was the occasion rather than the cause; for he died of a gradual dissolution rather than a definite disease.
It was a curious story which Ethne had to tell, for it seemed that just before his death Dermod recaptured something of his old masterful spirit. “We knew that he was dying,” Ethne said. “He knew it too, and at seven o’clock of the afternoon after—” she hesitated for a moment and resumed, “after he had spoken for a little while to me, he called his dog by name. The dog sprang at once on to the bed, though his voice had not risen above a whisper, and crouching quite close, pushed its muzzle with a whine under my father’s hand. Then he told me to leave him and the dog altogether alone. I was to shut the door upon him. The dog would tell me when to open it again. I obeyed him and waited outside the door until one o’clock. Then a loud sudden howl moaned through the house.” She stopped for a while. This pause was the only sign of distress which she gave, and in a few moments she went on, speaking quite simply, without any of the affectations of grief. “It was trying to wait outside that door while the afternoon faded and the night came. It was night, of course, long before the end. He would have no lamp left in his room. One imagined him just the other side of that thin door-panel, lying very still and silent in the great four-poster bed with his face towards the hills, and the light falling. One imagined the room slipping away into darkness, and the windows continually looming into a greater importance, and the dog by his side and no one else, right to the very end. He would have it that way, but it was rather hard for me.”
Durrance said nothing in reply, but gave her in full measure what she most needed, the sympathy of his silence. He imagined those hours in the passage, six hours of twilight and darkness; he could picture her standing close by the door, with her ear perhaps to the panel, and her hand upon her heart to check its loud beating. There was something rather cruel, he thought, in Dermod’s resolve to die alone. It was Ethne who broke the silence.
“I said that my father spoke to me just before he told me to leave him. Of whom do you think he spoke?”
She was looking directly at Durrance as she put the question. From neither her eyes nor the level tone of her voice could he gather anything of the answer, but a sudden throb of hope caught away his breath.
“Tell me!” he said, in a sort of suspense, as he leaned forward in his chair.
“Of Mr. Feversham,” she answered, and he drew back again, and rather suddenly. It was evident that this was not the name which he had expected. He took his eyes from hers and stared downwards at the carpet, so that she might not see his face.
“My father was always very fond of him,” she continued gently, “and I think that I would like to know if you have any knowledge of what he is doing or where he is.”
Durrance did not answer nor did he raise his face. He reflected upon the strange strong hold which Harry Feversham kept upon the affections of those who had once known him well; so that even the man whom he had wronged, and upon whose daughter he had brought much suffering, must remember him with kindliness upon his death-bed. The reflection was not without its bitterness to Durrance at this moment, and this bitterness he was afraid that his face and voice might both betray. But he was compelled to speak, for Ethne insisted.
“You have never come across him, I suppose?” she asked.
Durrance rose from his seat and walked to the window before he answered. He spoke looking out into the street, but though he thus concealed the expression of his face, a thrill of deep anger sounded through his words, in spite of his efforts to subdue his tones.
“No,” he said, “I never have,” and suddenly his anger had its way with him; it chose as well as informed his words. “And I never wish to,” he cried. “He was my friend, I know. But I cannot remember that friendship now. I can only think that if he had been the true man we took him for, you would not have waited alone in that dark passage during those six hours.” He turned again to the centre of the room and asked abruptly:
“You are going back to Glenalla?”
“You will live there alone?”
For a little while there was silence between them. Then Durrance walked round to the back of her chair.
“You once said that you would perhaps tell me why your engagement was broken off.”
“But you know,” she said. “What you said at the window showed that you knew.”
“No, I do not. One or two words your father let drop. He asked me for news of Feversham the last time that I spoke with him. But I know nothing definite. I should like you to tell me.”
Ethne shook her head and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. “Not now,” she said, and silence again followed her words. Durrance broke it again.
“I have only one more year at Haifa. It would be wise to leave Egypt then, I think. I do not expect much will be done in the Soudan for some little while. I do not think that I will stay there—in any case. I mean even if you should decide to remain alone at Glenalla.”
Ethne made no pretence to ignore the suggestion of his words. “We are neither of us children,” she said; “you have all your life to think of. We should be prudent.”
“Yes,” said Durrance, with a sudden exasperation, “but the right kind of prudence. The prudence which knows that it’s worth while to dare a good deal.”
Ethne did not move. She was leaning forward with her back towards him, so that he could see nothing of her face, and for a long while she remained in this attitude, quite silent and very still. She asked a question at the last, and in a very low and gentle voice.
“Do you want me so very much?” And before he could answer she turned quickly towards him. “Try not to,” she exclaimed earnestly. “For this one year try not to. You have much to occupy your thoughts. Try to forget me altogether,” and there was just sufficient regret in her tone, the regret at the prospect of losing a valued friend, to take all the sting from her words, to confirm Durrance in his delusion that but for her fear that she would spoil his career, she would answer him in very different words. Mrs. Adair came into the room before he could reply, and thus he carried away with him his delusion.
He dined that evening at his club, and sat afterwards smoking his cigar under the big tree where he had sat so persistently a year before in his vain quest for news of Harry Feversham. It was much the same sort of clear night as that on which he had seen Lieutenant Sutch limp into the courtyard and hesitate at the sight of him. The strip of sky was cloudless and starry overhead; the air had the pleasant languor of a summer night in June; the lights flashing from the windows and doorways gave to the leaves of the trees the fresh green look of spring; and outside in the roadway the carriages rolled with a thunderous hum like the sound of the sea. And on this night, too, there came a man into the courtyard who knew Durrance. But he did not hesitate. He came straight up to Durrance and sat down upon the seat at his side. Durrance dropped the paper at which he was glancing and held out his hand.
“How do you do?” said he. This friend was Captain Mather.
“I was wondering whether I should meet you when I read the evening paper. I knew that it was about the time one might expect to find you in London. You have seen, I suppose?”
“What?” asked Durrance.
“Then you haven’t,” replied Mather. He picked up the newspaper which Durrance had dropped and turned over the sheets, searching for the piece of news which he required. “You remember that last reconnaissance we made from Suakin?”
“We halted by the Sinkat fort at midday. There was an Arab hiding in the trees at the back of the glacis.”
“Have you forgotten the yarn he told you?”
“About Gordon’s letters and the wall of a house in Berber? No, I have not forgotten.”
“Then here’s something which will interest you,” and Captain Mather, having folded the paper to his satisfaction, handed it to Durrance and pointed to a paragraph. It was a short paragraph; it gave no details; it was the merest summary; and Durrance read it through between the puffs of his cigar.
“The fellow must have gone back to Berber after all,” said he. “A risky business. Abou Fatma—that was the man’s name.”
The paragraph made no mention of Abou Fatma, or indeed of any man except Captain Willoughby, the Deputy-Governor of Suakin. It merely announced that certain letters which the Mahdi had sent to Gordon summoning him to surrender Khartum, and inviting him to become a convert to the Mahdist religion, together with copies of Gordon’s curt replies, had been recovered from a wall in Berber and brought safely to Captain Willoughby at Suakin.
“They were hardly worth risking a life for,” said Mather.
“Perhaps not,” replied Durrance, a little doubtfully. “But after all, one is glad they have been recovered. Perhaps the copies are in Gordon’s own hand. They are, at all events, of an historic interest.”
“In a way, no doubt,” said Mather. “But even so, their recovery throws no light upon the history of the siege. It can make no real difference to any one, not even to the historian.”
“That is true,” Durrance agreed, and there was nothing more untrue. In the same spot where he had sought for news of Feversham news had now come to him—only he did not know. He was in the dark; he could not appreciate that here was news which, however little it might trouble the historian, touched his life at the springs. He dismissed the paragraph from his mind, and sat thinking over the conversation which had passed that afternoon between Ethne and himself, and without discouragement. Ethne had mentioned Harry Feversham, it was true, had asked for news of him. But she might have been—nay, she probably had been—moved to ask because her father’s last words had referred to him. She had spoken his name in a perfectly steady voice, he remembered; and, indeed, the mere fact that she had spoken it at all might be taken as a sign that it had no longer any power with her. There was something hopeful to his mind in her very request that he should try during this one year to omit her from his thoughts. For it seemed almost to imply that if he could not, she might at the end of it, perhaps, give to him the answer for which he longed. He allowed a few days to pass, and then called again at Mrs. Adair’s house. But he found only Mrs. Adair. Ethne had left London and returned to Donegal. She had left rather suddenly, Mrs. Adair told him, and Mrs. Adair had no sure knowledge of the reason of her going.
Durrance, however, had no doubt as to the reason. Ethne was putting into practice the policy which she had commended to his thoughts. He was to try to forget her, and she would help him to success so far as she could by her absence from his sight. And in attributing this reason to her, Durrance was right. But one thing Ethne had forgotten. She had not asked him to cease to write to her, and accordingly in the autumn of that year the letters began again to come from the Soudan. She was frankly glad to receive them, but at the same time she was troubled. For in spite of their careful reticence, every now and then a phrase leaped out—it might be merely the repetition of some trivial sentence which she had spoken long ago and long ago forgotten—and she could not but see that in spite of her prayer she lived perpetually in his thoughts. There was a strain of hopefulness too, as though he moved in a world painted with new colours and suddenly grown musical. Ethne had never freed herself from the haunting fear that one man’s life had been spoilt because of her; she had never faltered from her determination that this should not happen with a second. Only with Durrance’s letters before her she could not evade a new and perplexing question. By what means was that possibility to be avoided? There were two ways. By choosing which of them could she fulfil her determination? She was no longer so sure as she had been the year before that his career was all in all. The question recurred to her again and again. She took it out with her on the hillside with the letters, and pondered and puzzled over it and got never an inch nearer to a solution. Even her violin failed her in this strait.