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The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 11580

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Autumn had given place to winter, and a bitter northeast wind was tearing through the pines, shrieking, as it fled, like the cry of a lost soul. The eerie sound of it served in some indefinable way to emphasise the cosy warmth and security of the room where Sara and her uncle were sitting, their chairs drawn close up to the log fire which burned on the wide, old-fashioned hearth.

Sara was engrossed in a book, her head bent low above its pages, unconscious of the keen blue eyes that had been regarding her reflectively for some minutes.

With the passage of the last two months, Patrick's face seemed to have grown more waxen, worn a little finer, and now, as he sat quietly watching the slender figure on the opposite side of the hearth, it wore a curious, inscrutable expression, as though he were mentally balancing the pros and cons of some knotty point.

At last he apparently came to a decision, for he laid aside the newspaper he had been reading a few moments before, muttering half audibly:

"Must take your fences as you come to 'em."

Sara looked up abstractedly.

"Did you say anything?" she asked doubtfully.

Patrick gave his shoulders a grim shake.

"I'm going to," he replied. "It's something that must be said, and, as I've never been in favour of postponing a thing just because its disagreeable, we may as well get it over."

He had focused Sara's attention unmistakably now.

"What is it?" she asked quickly. "You haven't had bad news?"

An odd smile crossed his face.

"On the contrary." He hesitated a moment, then continued: "I had a longish talk with Dr. McPherson yesterday, and the upshot of it is that I may be required to hand in my checks any day now. I wanted you to know," he added simply.

It was characteristic of the understanding between these two that Patrick made no effort to "break the news," or soften it in any way. He had always been prepared to face facts himself, and he had trained Sara in the same stern creed.

So that now, when he quietly stated in plain language the thing which she had been inwardly dreading for some weeks-for, though silent on the matter, she had not failed to observe his appearance of increasing frailty-she took it like a thorough-bred. Her eyes dilated a little, but her voice was quite steady as she said:

"You mean--"

"I mean that before very long I shall put off this vile body." He glanced down whimsically at his useless legs, cloaked beneath the inevitable rug. "After all," he continued, "life-and death-are both fearfully interesting if one only goes to meet them instead of running away from them. Then they become bogies."

"And what shall I do . . . without you?" she said very low.

"Aye." He nodded. "It's worse for those who are left behind. I've been one of them, and I know. I remember-" He broke off short, his blue eyes dreaming. Presently he gave his shoulders the characteristic little shake which presaged the dismissal of some recalcitrant secret thought, and went on in quick, practical tones.

"I don't want to go out leaving a lot of loose ends behind me-a tangle for you to unravel. So, since the fiat has gone forth-McPherson's a sound man and knows his job-let's face it together, little old pal. It will mean your leaving Barrow, you know," he added tentatively.

Sara nodded, her face rather white.

"Yes, I know. I shan't care-then."

"Oh yes, you will"-with shrewd wisdom. "It will be an extra drop in the bucket, you'll find, when the time comes. Unfortunately, however, there's no getting round the entail, and when I go, my cousin, Major Durward, will reign in my stead."

"Why does the Court go to a Durward?" asked Sara listlessly. "Aren't there any Lovells to inherit?"

"He is a Lovell. His father and mine were brothers, but his godfather, old Timothy Durward left him his property on condition that he adopted the name. Geoffrey Durward has a son called Timothy-after the old man."

"The Durwards have never been here since I came to live with you," observed Sara thoughtfully. "Don't you care for him-your cousin, I mean?"

"Geoffrey? Yes, he's a charming fellow, and he's been a rattling good soldier-got his D.S.O. in the South African campaign. But he and his wife-she was a Miss Eden-were stationed in India so many years, I rather lost touch with them. They came home when the Durward property fell in to them-about seven or eight years ago. She, I think"-reminiscently-"was one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen."

The shadow in Sara's eyes lifted for a moment.

"Is that the reason you've always remained a bachelor?" she asked, twinkling.

"God bless my soul, no! I never wanted to marry Elisabeth Eden-though there were plenty of men who did." He regarded Sara with an odd smile. "Some day, you'll know-why I never wanted to marry Elisabeth."

"Tell me now."

He shook his head.

"No. You'll know soon enough-soon enough."

He was silent, fallen a-dreaming once again; and again he seemed to pull himself up short, forcing himself back to the consideration of the practical needs of the moment.

"As I was saying, Sara, sooner or later you'll have to turn out of the old Court. It's entailed, and the income with it. But I've a clear four hundred a year, altogether apart from the Barrow moneys, and that, at my death, will be yours."

"I don't want to hear about it!" burst out Sara passionately. "It's hateful even talking of such things."

Patrick smiled, amused and a little touched by youth's lack of worldly wisdom.

"Don't be a fool, my dear. I shan't die a day sooner for having made my will-and I shall die a deal more comfortably, knowing that you are provided for. I promised your mother that, as far as lay in my power, I would shield you from wrecking your life a

s she wrecked hers. And money-a secure little income of her own-is a very good sort of shield for a women. Four hundred's not enough to satisfy a mercenary individual, but it's enough to enable a woman to marry for love-and not for a home!" He spoke with a kind of repressed bitterness, as though memory had stirred into fresh flame the embers of some burnt-out passion of regret, and Sara looked at him with suddenly aroused interest.

But apparently Patrick did not sense the question that troubled on her lips, or, if he did, had no mind to answer it, for he went on in lighter tones:

"There, that's enough about business for the present. I only wanted you to know that, whatever happens, you will be all right as far as bread-and-cheese are concerned."

"I believe you think that's all I should care about!" exclaimed Sara stormily.

Patrick smiled. He had not been a citizen of the world for over sixty years without acquiring the grim knowledge that neither intense happiness nor deep grief suffice to deaden for very long the pinpricks of material discomfort. But the worldly-wise old man possessed a broad tolerance for the frailties of human nature, and his smile held nothing of contempt, but only a whimsical humour touched with kindly understanding.

"I know you better than that, my dear," he answered quietly. "But I often think of what I once heard an old working-woman, down in the village, say. She had just lost her husband, and the rector's wife was handing out the usual platitudes, and holding forth on the example of Christian fortitude exhibited by a very wealthy lady in the neighbourhood, who had also been recently widowed. 'That's all very well, ma'am,' said my old woman drily, 'but fat sorrow's a deal easier to bear than lean sorrow.' And though it may sound unromantic, it's the raw truth-only very few people are sincere enough to acknowledge it."

In the weeks that followed, Patrick seemed to recover a large measure of his accustomed vigour. He was extraordinarily alert and cheerful-so alive that Sara began to hope Dr. McPherson had been mistaken in his opinion, and that there might yet remain many more good years of the happy comradeship that existed between herself and her guardian.

Such buoyancy appeared incompatible with the imminence of death, and one day, driven by the very human instinct to hear her optimism endorsed, she scoffed a little, tentatively, at the doctor's verdict.

Patrick shook his head.

"No, my dear, he's right," he said decisively. "But I'm not going to whine about it. Taken all round, I've found life a very good sort of thing-although"-reflectively-"I've missed the best it has to offer a man. And probably I'll find death a very good sort of thing, too, when it comes."

And so Patrick Lovell went forward, his spirit erect, to meet death with the same cheerful, half-humorous courage he had opposed to the emergencies of life.

It was a few days after this, on Christmas Eve, that Sara, coming into his special den with a gay little joke on her lips and a great bunch of mistletoe in her arms, was arrested by the sudden, chill quiet of the little room.

The familiar wheeled chair was drawn up to the window, and she could see the back of Patrick's head with its thick crop of grizzled hair, but he did not turn or speak at the sound of her entrance.

"Uncle, didn't you hear me? Are you asleep? . . . Uncle!" Her voice shrilled on to a sharp staccato note, then cracked and broke suddenly.

There came no movement from the chair. The silence remained unbroken save for the ticking of a clock and the loud beating of her own heart. The two seemed to merge into one gigantic pulse . . . deafening . . . overwhelming . . . like the surge of some immense, implacable sea.

She swayed a little, clutching at the door for support. Then the throbbing ceased, and she was only conscious of a solitude so intense that it seemed to press about her like a tangible thing.

Swiftly, on feet of terror, she crossed the room and stood looking down at the motionless figure of her uncle. His face was turned towards the sun, and wore an expression of complete happiness and content, as though he had just found something for which he had been searching. He had looked like that a thousand times, when, seeking for her, he had come upon her, at last, hidden in some shady nook in the garden or swinging in her hammock. She could almost hear the familiar "Oh, there you are, little pal!" with which he would joyously acclaim her discovery.

She lifted the hand that was resting quietly on his knee. It lay in hers, flaccid and inert, its dreadful passivity stinging her into realization of the truth. Patrick was dead. And, judging from his expression, he had found death "a very good sort of thing," just as he had expected.

For a little while Sara remained standing quietly beside the still figure in the chair. They would never be alone together any more-not quite like this, Patrick sitting in his accustomed place, wearing his beloved old tweeds, with an immaculate tie and with his single eyeglass-about which she had so often chaffed him-dangling across his chest on its black ribbon.

Her mouth quivered. "Stand up to it!" . . . The voice-Patrick's voice-seemed to sound in her ear . . . "Stand up to it, little old pal!"

She bit back the sob that climbed to her throat, and stood silently facing the enemy, as it were.

This was the end, then, of one chapter of her existence-the chapter of sheltered, happy life at Barrow, and in these quiet moments, alone for the last time with Patrick Lovell, Sara tried to gather strength and courage from her memories of his cheery optimism to face gamely whatever might befall her in the big world into which she must so soon adventure.

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