The intervening years had gradually been dropping from his thoughts all through his journey across Egypt and the Continent. They were no more than visionary now. Nor was he occupied with any dream of the things which might have been but for his great fault. The things which had been, here, in this small town of Ireland, were too definite. Here he had been most happy, here he had known the uttermost of his misery; here his presence had brought pleasure, here too he had done his worst harm. Once he stopped when he was opposite to the church, set high above the road upon his right hand, and wondered whether Ethne was still at Ramelton—whether old Dermod was alive, and what kind of welcome he would receive. But he waked in a moment to the knowledge that he was sitting upon his horse in the empty road and in the quiet of an August morning. There were larks singing in the pale blue above his head; a landrail sent up its harsh cry from the meadow on the left; the crow of a cock rose clear from the valley. He looked about him, and rode briskly on down the incline in front of him and up the ascent beyond. He rode again with his company of ghosts—phantoms of people with whom upon this road he had walked and ridden and laughed, ghosts of old thoughts and recollected words. He came to a thick grove of trees, a broken fence, a gateway with no gate. Inattentive to these evidences of desertion, he turned in at the gate and rode along a weedy and neglected drive. At the end of it he came to an open space before a ruined house. The aspect of the tumbling walls and unroofed rooms roused him at last completely from his absorption. He dismounted, and, tying his horse to the branch of a tree, ran quickly into the house and called aloud. No voice answered him. He ran from deserted room to deserted room. He descended into the garden, but no one came to meet him; and he understood now from the uncut grass upon the lawn, the tangled disorder of the flowerbeds, that no one would come. He mounted his horse again, and rode back at a sharp trot. In Ramelton he stopped at the inn, gave his horse to the ostler, and ordered lunch for himself. He said to the landlady who waited upon him:
“So Lennon House has been burned down? When was that?”
“Five years ago,” the landlady returned, “just five years ago this summer.” And she proceeded, without further invitation, to give a voluminous account of the conflagration and the cause of it, the ruin of the Eustace family, the inebriety of Bastable, and the death of Dermod Eustace at Glenalla. “But we hope to see the house rebuilt. It’s likely to be, we hear, when Miss Eustace is married,” she said, in a voice which suggested that she was full of interesting information upon the subject of Miss Eustace’s marriage. Her guest, however, did not respond to the invitation.
“And where does Miss Eustace live now?”
“At Glenalla,” she replied. “Halfway on the road to Rathmullen there’s a track leads up to your left. It’s a poor mountain village is Glenalla, and no place for Miss Eustace, at all, at all. Perhaps you will be wanting to see her?”
“Yes. I shall be glad if you will order my horse to be brought round to the door,” said the man; and he rose from the table to put an end to the interview.
The landlady, however, was not so easily dismissed. She stood at the door and remarked:
“Well, that’s curious—that’s most curious. For only a fortnight ago a gentleman burnt just as black as yourself stayed a night here on the same errand. He asked for Miss Eustace’s address and drove up to Glenalla. Perhaps you have business with her?”
“Yes, I have business with Miss Eustace,” the stranger returned. “Will you be good enough to give orders about my horse?”
While he was waiting for his horse he looked through the leaves of the hotel book, and saw under a date towards the end of July the name of Colonel Trench.
“You will come back, sir, to-night?” said the landlady, as he mounted.
“No,” he answered, “I do not think I shall come again to Ramelton.” And he rode down the hill, and once more that day crossed the Lennon bridge. Four miles on he came to the track opposite a little bay of the Lough, and, turning into it, he rode past a few white cottages up to the purple hollow of the hills. It was about five o’clock when he came to the long, straggling village. It seemed very quiet and deserted, and built without any plan. A few cottages stood together, then came a gap of fields, beyond that a small plantation of larches and a house which stood by itself. Beyond the house was another gap, through which he could see straight down to the water of the Lough, shining in the afternoon sun, and the white gulls poising and swooping above it. And after passing that gap he came to a small grey church, standing bare to the winds upon its tiny plateau. A pathway of white shell-dust led from the door of the church to the little wooden gate. As he came level with the gate a collie dog barked at him from behind it.
The rider looked at the dog, which was very grey about the muzzle. He noticed its marking, and stopped his horse altogether. He glanced towards the church, and saw that the door stood open. At once he dismounted; he fastened his horse to the fence, and entered the churchyard. The collie thrust its muzzle into the back of his knee, sniffed once or twice doubtfully, and suddenly broke into an exuberant welcome. The collie dog had a better memory than the landlady of the inn. He barked, wagged his tail, crouched and sprang at the stranger’s shoulders, whirled round and round in front of him, burst into sharp, excited screams of pleasure, ran up to the church door and barked furiously there, then ran back and jumped again upon his friend. The man caught the dog as it stood up with its forepaws upon his chest, patted it, and laughed. Suddenly he ceased laughing, and stood stock-still with his eyes towards the open door of the church. In the doorway Ethne Eustace was standing. He put the dog down and slowly walked up the path towards her. She waited on the threshold without moving, without speaking. She waited, watching him, until he came close to her. Then she said simply:
She was silent after that; nor did he speak. All the ghosts and phantoms of old thoughts in whose company he had travelled the whole of that day vanished away from his mind at her simple utterance of his name. Six years had passed since his feet crushed the gravel on the dawn of a June morning beneath her window. And they looked at one another, remarking the changes which those six years had brought. And the changes, unnoticed and almost imperceptible to those who had lived daily in their company, sprang very distinct to the eyes of these two. Feversham was thin, his face was wasted. The strain of life in the House of Stone had left its signs about his sunken eyes and in the look of age beyond his years. But these were not the only changes, as Ethne noticed; they were not, indeed, the most important ones. Her heart, although she stood so still and silent, went out to him in grief for the great troubles which he had endured; but she saw, too, that he came back without a thought of anger towards her for that fourth feather snapped from her fan. But she was clear-eyed even at this moment. She saw much more. She understood that the man who stood quietly before her now was not the same man whom she had last seen in the hall of Ramelton. There had been a timidity in his manner in those days, a peculiar diffidence, a continual expectation of other men’s contempt, which had gone from him. He was now quietly self-possessed; not arrogant; on the other hand, not diffident. He had put himself to a long, hard test; and he knew that he had not failed. All that she saw; and her face lightened as she said:
“It is not all harm which has come of these years. They were not wasted.”
But Feversham thought of her lonely years in this village of Glenalla—and thought with a man’s thought, unaware that nowhere else would she have chosen to live. He looked into her face, and saw the marks of the years upon it. It was not that she had aged so much. Her big grey eyes shone as clearly as before, the colour was still as bright upon her cheeks. But there was more of character. She had suffered; she had eaten of the tree of knowledge.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I did you a great wrong six years ago, and I need not.”
She held out her hand to him.
“Will you give it me, please?”
And for a moment he did not understand.
“That fourth feather,” she said.
He drew his letter-case from his coat, and shook two feathers out into the palm of his hand. The larger one, the ostrich feather, he held out to her. But she said:
There was no reason why he should keep Castleton’s feather any longer. He handed them both to her, since she asked for them, and she clasped them, and with a smile treasured them against her breast.
“I have the four feathers now,” she said.
“Yes,” answered Feversham; “all four. What will you do with them?”
Ethne’s smile became a laugh.
“Do with them!” she cried in scorn, “I shall do nothing with them. I shall keep them. I am very proud to have them to keep.”
She kept them, as she had once kept Harry Feversham’s portrait. There was something perhaps in Durrance’s contention that women so much more than men gather up their experiences and live upon them, looking backwards. Feversham, at all events, would now have dropped the feathers then and there and crushed them into the dust of the path with his heel; they had done their work. They could no longer reproach, they were no longer needed to encourage, they were dead things. Ethne, however, held them tight in her hand; to her they were not dead.
“Colonel Trench was here a fortnight ago,” she said. “He told me you were bringing it back to me.”
“But he did not know of the fourth feather,” said Feversham. “I never told any man that I had it.”
“Yes. You told Colonel Trench on your first night in the House of Stone at Omdurman. He told me. I no longer hate him,” she added, but without a smile and quite seriously, as though it was an important statement which needed careful recognition.
“I am glad of that,” said Feversham. “He is a great friend of mine.”
Ethne was silent for a moment or two. Then she said:
“I wonder whether you have forgotten our drive from Ramelton to our house when I came to fetch you from the quay? We were alone in the dog-cart, and we spoke—”
“Of the friends whom one knows for friends the first moment, and whom one seems to recognise even though one has never seen them before,” interruped Feversham. “Indeed I remember.”
“And whom one never loses whether absent or dead,” continued Ethne. “I said that one could always be sure of such friends, and you answered—”
“I answered that one could make mistakes,” again Feversham interrupted.
“Yes, and I disagreed. I said that one might seem to make mistakes, and perhaps think so for a long while, but that in the end one would be proved not to have made them. I have often thought of those words. I remembered them very clearly when Captain Willoughby brought to me the first feather, and with a great deal of remorse. I remember them again very clearly to-day, although I have no room in my thoughts for remorse. I was right, you see, and I should have clung firmly to my faith. But I did not.” Her voice shook a little, and pleaded as she went on: “I was young. I knew very little. I was unaware how little. I judged hastily; but to-day I understand.”
She opened her hand and gazed for a while at the white feathers. Then she turned and went inside the church. Feversham followed her.