The ridge of hill along which he drove dipped suddenly to a hollow. Sutch saw the road run steeply down in front of him between forests of pines to a little railway station. The sight of the rails gleaming bright in the afternoon sunlight, and the telegraph poles running away in a straight line until they seemed to huddle together in the distance, increased Sutch’s discomposure. He reined his pony in, and sat staring with a frown at the red-tiled roof of the station building.
“I promised Harry to say nothing,” he said; and drawing some makeshift of comfort from the words, repeated them, “I promised faithfully in the Criterion grillroom.”
The whistle of an engine a long way off sounded clear and shrill. It roused Lieutenant Sutch from his gloomy meditations. He saw the white smoke of an approaching train stretched out like a riband in the distance.
“I wonder what brings him,” he said doubtfully; and then with an effort at courage, “Well, it’s no use shirking.” He flicked the pony with his whip and drove briskly down the hill. He reached the station as the train drew up at the platform. Only two passengers descended from the train. They were Durrance and his servant, and they came out at once on to the road. Lieutenant Sutch hailed Durrance, who walked to the side of the trap.
“You received my telegram in time, then?” said Durrance.
“Luckily it found me at home.”
“I have brought a bag. May I trespass upon you for a night’s lodging?”
“By all means,” said Sutch, but the tone of his voice quite clearly to Durrance’s ears belied the heartiness of the words. Durrance, however, was prepared for a reluctant welcome, and he had purposely sent his telegram at the last moment. Had he given an address, he suspected that he might have received a refusal of his visit. And his suspicion was accurate enough. The telegram, it is true, had merely announced Durrance’s visit, it had stated nothing of his object; but its despatch was sufficient to warn Sutch that something grave had happened, something untoward in the relations of Ethne Eustace and Durrance. Durrance had come, no doubt, to renew his inquiries about Harry Feversham, those inquiries which Sutch was on no account to answer, which he must parry all this afternoon and night. But he saw Durrance feeling about with his raised foot for the step of the trap, and the fact of his visitor’s blindness was brought home to him. He reached out a hand, and catching Durrance by the arm, helped him up. After all, he thought, it would not be difficult to hoodwink a blind man. Ethne herself had had the same thought and felt much the same relief as Sutch felt now. The lieutenant, indeed, was so relieved that he found room for an impulse of pity.
“I was very sorry, Durrance, to hear of your bad luck,” he said, as he drove off up the hill. “I know what it is myself to be suddenly stopped and put aside just when one is making way and the world is smoothing itself out, though my wound in the leg is nothing in comparison to your blindness. I don’t talk to you about compensations and patience. That’s the gabble of people who are comfortable and haven’t suffered. We know that for a man who is young and active, and who is doing well in a career where activity is a necessity, there are no compensations if his career’s suddenly cut short through no fault of his.”
“Through no fault of his,” repeated Durrance. “I agree with you. It is only the man whose career is cut short through his own fault who gets compensations.”
Sutch glanced sharply at his companion. Durrance had spoken slowly and very thoughtfully. Did he mean to refer to Harry Feversham, Sutch wondered. Did he know enough to be able so to refer to him? Or was it merely by chance that his words were so strikingly apposite?
“Compensations of what kind?” Sutch asked uneasily.
“The chance of knowing himself for one thing, for the chief thing. He is brought up short, stopped in his career, perhaps disgraced.” Sutch started a little at the word. “Yes, perhaps—disgraced,” Durrance repeated. “Well, the shock of the disgrace is, after all, his opportunity. Don’t you see that? It’s his opportunity to know himself at last. Up to the moment of disgrace his life has all been sham and illusion; the man he believed himself to be, he never was, and now at the last he knows it. Once he knows it, he can set about to retrieve his disgrace. Oh, there are compensations for such a man. You and I know a case in point.”
Sutch no longer doubted that Durrance was deliberately referring to Harry Feversham. He had some knowledge, though how he had gained it Sutch could not guess. But the knowledge was not to Sutch’s idea quite accurate, and the inaccuracy did Harry Feversham some injustice. It was on that account chiefly that Sutch did not affect any ignorance as to Durrance’s allusion. The passage of the years had not diminished his great regard for Harry; he cared for him indeed with a woman’s concentration of love, and he could not endure that his memory should be slighted.
“The case you and I know of is not quite in point,” he argued. “You are speaking of Harry Feversham.”
“Who believed himself a coward, and was not one. He commits the fault which stops his career, he finds out his mistake, he sets himself to the work of retrieving his disgrace. Surely it’s a case quite in point.”
“Yes, I see,” Sutch agreed. “There is another view, a wrong view as I know, but I thought for the moment it was your view—that Harry fancied himself to be a brave man and was suddenly brought up short by discovering that he was a coward. But how did you find out? No one knew the whole truth except myself.”
“I am engaged to Miss Eustace,” said Durrance.
“She did not know everything. She knew of the disgrace, but she did not know of the determination to retrieve it.”
“She knows now,” said Durrance; and he added sharply, “You are glad of that—very glad.”
Sutch was not aware that by any movement or exclamation he had betrayed his pleasure. His face, no doubt, showed it clearly enough, but Durrance could not see his face. Lieutenant Sutch was puzzled, but he did not deny the imputation.
“It is true,” he said stoutly. “I am very glad that she knows. I can quite see that from your point of view it would be better if she did not know. But I cannot help it. I am very glad.”
Durrance laughed, and not at all unpleasantly. “I like you the better for being glad,” he said.
“But how does Miss Eustace know?” asked Sutch. “Who told her? I did not, and there is no one else who could tell her.”
“You are wrong. There is Captain Willoughby. He came to Devonshire six weeks ago. He brought with him a white feather which he gave to Miss Eustace, as a proof that he withdrew his charge of cowardice against Harry Feversham.”
Sutch stopped the pony in the middle of the road. He no longer troubled to conceal the joy which this good news caused him. Indeed, he forgot altogether Durrance’s presence at his side. He sat quite silent and still, with a glow of happiness upon him, such as he had never known in all his life. He was an old man now, well on in his sixties; he had reached an age when the blood runs slow, and the pleasures are of a grey sober kind, and joy has lost its fevers. But there welled up in his heart a gladness of such buoyancy as only falls to the lot of youth. Five years ago on the pier of Dover he had watched a mail packet steam away into darkness and rain, and had prayed that he might live until this great moment should come. And he had lived and it had come. His heart was lifted up in gratitude. It seemed to him that there was a great burst of sunlight across the world, and that the world itself had suddenly grown many-coloured and a place of joys. Ever since the night when he had stood outside the War Office in Pall Mall, and Harry Feversham had touched him on the arm and had spoken out his despair, Lieutenant Sutch had been oppressed with a sense of guilt. Harry was Muriel Feversham’s boy, and Sutch just for that reason should have watched him and mothered him in his boyhood since his mother was dead, and fathered him in his youth since his father did not understand. But he had failed. He had failed in a sacred trust, and he had imagined Muriel Feversham’s eyes looking at him with reproach from the barrier of the skies. He had heard her voice in his dreams saying to him gently, ever so gently: “Since I was dead, since I was taken away to where I could only see and not help, surely you might have helped. Just for my sake you might have helped—you whose work in the world was at an end.” And the long tale of his inactive years had stood up to accuse him. Now, however, the guilt was lifted from his shoulders, and by Harry Feversham’s own act. The news was not altogether unexpected, but the lightness of spirit which he felt showed him how much he had counted upon its coming.
“I knew,” he exclaimed, “I knew he wouldn’t fail. Oh, I am glad you came to-day, Colonel Durrance. It was partly my fault, you see, that Harry Feversham ever incurred that charge of cowardice. I could have spoken—there was an opportunity on one of the Crimean nights at Broad Place, and a word might have been of value—and I held my tongue. I have never ceased to blame myself. I am grateful for your news. You have the particulars? Captain Willoughby was in peril, and Harry came to his aid?”
“No, it was not that exactly.”
“Tell me! Tell me!”
He feared to miss a word. Durrance related the story of the Gordon letters, and their recovery by Feversham. It was all too short for Lieutenant Sutch.
“Oh, but I am glad you came,” he cried.
“You understand at all events,” said Durrance, “that I have not come to repeat to you the questions I asked in the courtyard of my club. I am able, on the contrary, to give you information.”
Sutch spoke to the pony and drove on. He had said nothing which could reveal to Durrance his fear that to renew those questions was the object of his visit; and he was a little perplexed at the accuracy of Durrance’s conjecture. But the great news to which he had listened hindered him from giving thought to that perplexity.
“So Miss Eustace told you the story,” he said, “and showed you the feather?”
“No, indeed,” replied Durrance. “She said not a word about it, she never showed me the feather, she even forbade Willoughby to hint of it, she sent him away from Devonshire before I knew that he had come. You are disappointed at that,” he added quickly.
Lieutenant Sutch was startled. It was true he was disappointed; he was jealous of Durrance, he wished Harry Feversham to stand first in the girl’s thoughts. It was for her sake that Harry had set about his difficult and perilous work. Sutch wished her to remember him as he remembered her. Therefore he was disappointed that she did not at once come with her news to Durrance and break off their engagement. It would be hard for Durrance, no doubt, but that could not be helped.
“Then how did you learn the story?” asked Sutch.
“Someone else told me. I was told that Willoughby had come, and that he had brought a white feather, and that Ethne had taken it from him. Never mind by whom. That gave me a clue. I lay in wait for Willoughby in London. He is not very clever; he tried to obey Ethne’s command of silence, but I managed to extract the information I wanted. The rest of the story I was able to put together by myself. Ethne now and then was off her guard. You are surprised that I was clever enough to find out the truth by the exercise of my own wits?” said Durrance, with a laugh.
Lieutenant Sutch jumped in his seat. It was mere chance, of course, that Durrance continually guessed with so singular an accuracy; still it was uncomfortable.
“I have said nothing which could in any way suggest that I was surprised,” he said testily.
“That is quite true, but you are none the less surprised,” continued Durrance. “I don’t blame you. You could not know that it is only since I have been blind that I have begun to see. Shall I give you an instance? This is the first time that I have ever come into this neighbourhood or got out at your station. Well, I can tell you that you have driven me up a hill between forests of pines, and are now driving me across open country of heather.”
Sutch turned quickly towards Durrance.
“The hill, of course, you would notice. But the pines?”
“The air was close. I knew there were trees. I guessed they were pines.”
“And the open country?”
“The wind blows clear across it. There’s a dry stiff rustle besides. I have never heard quite that sound except when the wind blows across heather.”
He turned the conversation back to Harry Feversham and his disappearance, and the cause of his disappearance. He made no mention, Sutch remarked, of the fourth white feather which Ethne herself had added to the three. But the history of the three which had come by the post to Ramelton he knew to its last letter.
“I was acquainted with the men who sent them,” he said, “Trench, Castleton, Willoughby. I met them daily in Suakin, just ordinary officers, one rather shrewd, the second quite commonplace, the third distinctly stupid. I saw them going quietly about the routine of their work. It seems quite strange to me now. There should have been some mark set upon them, setting them apart as the particular messengers of fate. But there was nothing of the kind. They were just ordinary prosaic regimental officers. Doesn’t it seem strange to you, too? Here were men who could deal out misery and estrangement and years of suffering, without so much as a single word spoken, and they went about their business, and you never knew them from other men until a long while afterwards some consequence of what they did, and very likely have forgotten, rises up and strikes you down.”
“Yes,” said Sutch. “That thought has occurred to me.” He fell to wondering again what object had brought Durrance into Hampshire, since he did not come for information; but Durrance did not immediately enlighten him. They reached the lieutenant’s house. It stood alone by the roadside looking across a wide country of downs. Sutch took Durrance over his stable and showed him his horses, he explained to him the arrangement of his garden and the grouping of his flowers. Still Durrance said nothing about the reason of his visit; he ceased to talk of Harry Feversham and assumed a great interest in the lieutenant’s garden. But indeed the interest was not all pretence. These two men had something in common, as Sutch had pointed out at the moment of their meeting—the abrupt termination of a promising career. One of the two was old, the other comparatively young, and the younger man was most curious to discover how his elder had managed to live through the dragging profitless years alone. The same sort of lonely life lay stretched out before Durrance, and he was anxious to learn what alleviations could be practised, what small interests could be discovered, how best it could be got through.
“You don’t live within sight of the sea,” he said at last as they stood together, after making the round of the garden, at the door.
“No, I dare not,” said Sutch, and Durrance nodded his head in complete sympathy and comprehension.
“I understand. You care for it too much. You would have the full knowledge of your loss presented to your eyes each moment.”
They went into the house. Still Durrance did not refer to the object of his visit. They dined together and sat over their wine alone. Still Durrance did not speak. It fell to Lieutenant Sutch to recur to the subject of Harry Feversham. A thought had been gaining strength in his mind all that afternoon, and since Durrance would not lead up to its utterance, he spoke it out himself.
“Harry Feversham must come back to England. He has done enough to redeem his honour.”
Harry Feversham’s return might be a little awkward for Durrance, and Lieutenant Sutch with that notion in his mind blurted out his sentences awkwardly, but to his surprise Durrance answered him at once.
“I was waiting for you to say that. I wanted you to realise without any suggestion of mine that Harry must return. It was with that object that I came.”
Lieutenant Sutch’s relief was great. He had been prepared for an objection, at the best he only expected a reluctant acquiescence, and in the greatness of his relief he spoke again:
“His return will not really trouble you or your wife, since Miss Eustace has forgotten him.”
Durrance shook his head.
“She has not forgotten him.”
“But she kept silence, even after Willoughby had brought the feather back. You told me so this afternoon. She said not a word to you. She forbade Willoughby to tell you.”
“She is very true, very loyal,” returned Durrance. “She has pledged herself to me, and nothing in the world, no promise of happiness, no thought of Harry, would induce her to break her pledge. I know her. But I know too that she only plighted herself to me out of pity, because I was blind. I know that she has not forgotten Harry.”
Lieutenant Sutch leaned back in his chair and smiled. He could have laughed outright. He asked for no details, he did not doubt Durrance’s words. He was overwhelmed with pride in that Harry Feversham, in spite of his disgrace and his long absence—Harry Feversham, his favourite, had retained this girl’s love. No doubt she was very true, very loyal. Sutch endowed her on the instant with all the good qualities possible to a human being. The nobler she was, the greater was his pride that Harry Feversham still retained her heart. Lieutenant Sutch fairly revelled in this new knowledge. It was not to be wondered at after all, he thought; there was nothing astonishing in the girl’s fidelity to anyone who was really acquainted with Harry Feversham, it was only an occasion of great gladness. Durrance would have to get out of the way, of course, but then he should never have crossed Harry Feversham’s path. Sutch was cruel with the perfect cruelty of which love alone is capable.
“You are very glad of that,” said Durrance, quietly. “Very glad that Ethne has not forgotten him. It is a little hard on me, perhaps, who have not much left. It would have been less hard if two years ago you had told me the whole truth, when I asked it of you that summer evening in the courtyard of the club.”
Compunction seized upon Lieutenant Sutch. The gentleness with which Durrance had spoken, and the quiet accent of weariness in his voice, brought home to him something of the cruelty of his great joy and pride. After all, what Durrance said was true. If he had broken his word that night at the club, if he had related Feversham’s story, Durrance would have been spared a great deal.
“I couldn’t!” he exclaimed. “I promised Harry in the most solemn way that I would tell no one until he came back himself. I was sorely tempted to tell you, but I had given my word. Even if Harry never came back, if I obtained sure knowledge that he was dead, even then I was only to tell his father, and even his father not all that could be told on his behalf.”
He pushed back his chair and went to the window. “It is hot in here,” he said. “Do you mind?” and without waiting for an answer he loosed the catch and raised the sash. For some little while he stood by the open window, silent, undecided. Durrance plainly did not know of the fourth feather broken off from Ethne’s fan, he had not heard the conversation between himself and Feversham in the grillroom of the Criterion Restaurant. There were certain words spoken by Harry upon that occasion which it seemed fair Durrance should now hear. Compunction and pity bade Sutch repeat them, his love of Harry Feversham enjoined him to hold his tongue. He could plead again that Harry had forbidden him speech, but the plea would be an excuse and nothing more. He knew very well that were Harry present, Harry would repeat them, and Lieutenant Sutch knew what harm silence had already done. He mastered his love in the end and came back to the table.
“There is something which it is fair you should know,” he said. “When Harry went away to redeem his honour, if the opportunity should come, he had no hope, indeed he had no wish, that Miss Eustace should wait for him. She was the spur to urge him, but she did not know even that. He did not wish her to know. He had no claim upon her. There was not even a hope in his mind that she might at some time be his friend—in this life, at all events. When he went away from Ramelton, he parted from her, according to his thought, for all his mortal life. It is fair that you should know that. Miss Eustace, you tell me, is not the woman to withdraw from her pledged word. Well, what I said to you that evening at the club I now repeat. There will be no disloyalty to friendship if you marry Miss Eustace.”
It was a difficult speech for Lieutenant Sutch to utter, and he was very glad when he had uttered it. Whatever answer he received, it was right that the words should be spoken, and he knew that, had he refrained from speech, he would always have suffered remorse for his silence. None the less, however, he waited in suspense for the answer.
“It is kind of you to tell me that,” said Durrance, and he smiled at the lieutenant with a great friendliness. “For I can guess what the words cost you. But you have done Harry Feversham no harm by speaking them. For, as I told you, Ethne has not forgotten him; and I have my point of view. Marriage between a man blind like myself and any woman, let alone Ethne, could not be fair or right unless upon both sides there was more than friendship. Harry must return to England. He must return to Ethne, too. You must go to Egypt and do what you can to bring him back.”
Sutch was relieved of his suspense. He had obeyed his conscience and yet done Harry Feversham no disservice.
“I will start to-morrow,” he said. “Harry is still in the Soudan?”
“Why of course?” asked Sutch. “Willoughby withdrew his accusation; Castleton is dead—he was killed at Tamai; and Trench—I know, for I have followed all these three men’s careers—Trench is a prisoner in Omdurman.”
“So is Harry Feversham.”
Sutch stared at his visitor. For a moment he did not understand, the shock had been too sudden and abrupt. Then after comprehension dawned upon him, he refused to believe. The folly of that refusal in its turn became apparent. He sat down in his chair opposite to Durrance, awed into silence. And the silence lasted for a long while.
“What am I to do?” he said at length.
“I have thought it out,” returned Durrance. “You must go to Suakin. I will give you a letter to Willoughby, who is Deputy-Governor, and another to a Greek merchant there whom I know, and on whom you can draw for as much money as you require.”
“That’s good of you, Durrance, upon my word,” Sutch interrupted; and forgetting that he was talking to a blind man he held out his hand across the table. “I would not take a penny if I could help it; but I am a poor man. Upon my soul it’s good of you.”
“Just listen to me, please,” said Durrance. He could not see the outstretched hand, but his voice showed that he would hardly have taken it if he had. He was striking the final blow at his chance of happiness. But he did not wish to be thanked for it. “At Suakin you must take the Greek merchant’s advice and organise a rescue as best you can. It will be a long business, and you will have many disappointments before you succeed. But you must stick to it until you do.”
Upon that the two men fell to a discussion of the details of the length of time which it would take for a message from Suakin to be carried into Omdurman, of the untrustworthiness of some Arab spies, and of the risks which the trustworthy ran. Sutch’s house was searched for maps, the various routes by which the prisoners might escape were described by Durrance—the great forty days’ road from Kordofan on the west, the straight track from Omdurman to Berber and from Berber to Suakin, and the desert journey across the Belly of Stones by the Wells of Murat to Korosko. It was late before Durrance had told all that he thought necessary and Sutch had exhausted his questions.
“You will stay at Suakin as your base of operations,” said Durrance, as he closed up the maps.
“Yes,” answered Sutch, and he rose from his chair. “I will start as soon as you give me the letters.”
“I have them already written.”
“Then I will start to-morrow. You may be sure I will let both you and Miss Eustace know how the attempt progresses.”
“Let me know,” said Durrance, “but not a whisper of it to Ethne. She knows nothing of my plan, and she must know nothing until Feversham comes back himself. She has her point of view, as I have mine. Two lives shall not be spoilt because of her. That’s her resolve. She believes that to some degree she was herself the cause of Harry Feversham’s disgrace—that but for her he would not have resigned his commission.”
“You agree with that? At all events she believes it. So there’s one life spoilt because of her. Suppose now I go to her and say: ‘I know that you pretend out of your charity and kindness to care for me, but in your heart you are no more than my friend,’ why, I hurt her, and cruelly. For there’s all that’s left of the second life spoilt too. But bring back Feversham! Then I can speak—then I can say freely: ‘Since you are just my friend, I would rather be your friend and nothing more. So neither life will be spoilt at all.’”
“I understand,” said Sutch. “It’s the way a man should speak. So till Feversham comes back the pretence remains. She pretends to care for you, you pretend you do not know she thinks of Harry. While I go eastwards to bring him home, you go back to her.”
“No,” said Durrance, “I can’t go back. The strain of keeping up the pretence was telling too much on both of us. I go to Wiesbaden. An oculist lives there who serves me for an excuse. I shall wait at Wiesbaden until you bring Harry home.”
Sutch opened the door, and the two men went out into the hall. The servants had long since gone to bed. A couple of candlesticks stood upon a table beside a lamp. More than once Lieutenant Sutch had forgotten that his visitor was blind, and he forgot the fact again. He lighted both candles and held out one to his companion. Durrance knew from the noise of Sutch’s movements what he was doing.
“I have no need of a candle,” he said with a smile. The light fell full upon his face, and Sutch suddenly remarked how tired it looked and old. There were deep lines from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth, and furrows in the cheeks. His hair was grey as an old man’s hair. Durrance had himself made so little of his misfortune this evening that Sutch had rather come to rate it as a small thing in the sum of human calamities, but he read his mistake now in Durrance’s face. Just above the flame of the candle, framed in the darkness of the hall, it showed white and drawn and haggard—the fact of an old worn man set upon the stalwart shoulders of a man in the prime of his years.
“I have said very little to you in the way of sympathy,” said Sutch. “I did not know that you would welcome it. But I am sorry. I am very sorry.”
“Thanks,” said Durrance, simply. He stood for a moment or two silently in front of his host. “When I was in the Soudan, travelling through the deserts, I used to pass the white skeletons of camels lying by the side of the track. Do you know the camel’s way? He is an unfriendly, graceless beast, but he marches to within an hour of his death. He drops and dies with the load upon his back. It seemed to me, even in those days, the right and enviable way to finish. You can imagine how I must envy them that advantage of theirs now. Good night.”
He felt for the bannister and walked up the stairs to his room.