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The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 21779

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

It was over. The master of Barrow had been carried shoulder-high to the great vault where countless Lovells slept their last sleep, the blinds had been drawn up, letting in the wintry sunlight once again, and the mourners had gone their ways. Only the new owner of the Court still lingered, and even he would be leaving very soon now.

Sara, her slim, boyish build, with its long line of slender hip, accentuated by the clinging black of her gown, moved listlessly across the hall to where Major Durward was standing smoking by the big open fire, waiting for the car which was to take him to the station.

He made as though to throw his cigarette away at her approach, but she gestured a hasty negative.

"No, don't," she said. "I like it. It seems to make things a little more natural. Uncle Pat"-with a wan smile-"was always smoking."

Her sombre eyes were shadowed and sad, and there was a pinched, drawn look about her nostrils. Major Durward regarded her with a concerned expression on his kindly face.

"You will miss him badly," he said.

"Yes, I shall miss him,"-simply. She returned his glance frankly. "You are very like him, you know," she added suddenly.

It was true. The big, soldierly man beside her, with his jolly blue eyes, grey hair, and short-clipped military moustache, bore a striking resemblance to the Patrick Lovell of ten years ago, before ill-health had laid its finger upon him, and during the difficult days that succeeded her uncle's death Sara had unconsciously found a strange kind of comfort in the likeness. She had dreaded inexpressibly the advent of the future owner of Barrow, but, when he had arrived, his resemblance to his dead cousin, and a certain similarity of gesture and of voice, common enough in families, had at once established a sense of kinship, which had deepened with her recognition of Durward's genuine kind-heartedness and solicitude for her comfort.

He had immediately assumed control of affairs, taking all the inevitable detail of arrangement off her shoulders, yet deferring to her as though she were still just as much mistress of the Court as she had been before her uncle's death. In every way he had tried to ease and smooth matters for her, and she felt proportionately grateful to him.

"Then, if you think I'm like him," said Durward gently, "will you let me try to take his place a little? I mean," he explained hastily, fearing she might misunderstand him, "that you will miss his guardianship and care of you, as well as the good pal you found in him. Will you let me try to fill in the gaps, if-if you should want advice, or service-anything over which a male man can be a bit useful? Oh--" breaking off with a short, embarrassed laugh-"it is so difficult to explain what I do mean!"

"I think I know," said Sara, smiling faintly. "You mean that now that Uncle Pat has gone, you don't want me to feel quite adrift in the world."

The big man, hampered by his masculine shyness of a difficult situation, smiled back at her, relieved.

"Yes, that's it, that's it!" he agreed eagerly. "I want you to regard me as a-a sort of sheet-anchor upon which you can pull in a storm."

"Thank you," said Sara. "I will. But I hope there won't be storms of such magnitude that I shall need to pull very hard."

Durward smoked furiously for a moment. Then he burst forth-

"You can't imagine what a brute I feel for turning you out of the Court. I wish it need not be. But the Lovells have always lived at the old place, and my wife-"

"Naturally." She interrupted him gently. "Naturally, she wishes to live here. I owe you no grudge for that," smiling. "When-how soon do you think of coming? I will make my arrangements accordingly."

"We should like to come as soon as possible, really," he admitted reluctantly. "I have the chance of leasing Durward Park, if the tenant can have what practically amounts to immediate possession. And of course, in the circumstances, I should be glad to get the Durward property off my hands."

"Of course you would." Sara nodded understandingly. "If you could let me have a few days in which to find some rooms-"

"No, no," he broke in eagerly. "I want you still to regard Barrow as your headquarters-to stay on here with us until you have fixed some permanent arrangement that suits you."

She was touched by the kindly suggestion; nevertheless, she shook her head with decision.

"It is more than kind of you to think of such a thing," she said gratefully. "But it is quite out of the question. Why, I am not even a cousin several times removed! I have no claim at all. Mrs. Durward-"

"Will be delighted. She asked me to be sure and tell you so. Please, Miss Tennant, don't refuse me. Don't"-persuasively-"oblige us to feel more brutal interlopers than we need."

Still she hesitated.

"If I were sure-" she began doubtfully.

"You may be-absolutely sure. There!"-with a sigh of relief-"that's settled. But, as I can see you're the kind of person whose conscientious scruples will begin to worry you the moment I'm gone"-he smiled-"my wife will write to you. Promise not to run away in the meantime?"

"I promise," said Sara. She held out her hand. "And-thank you." Her eyes, suddenly misty, supplemented the baldness of the words.

He took the outstretched hand in a close, friendly grip.

"Good. That's the car, I think," as the even purring of a motor sounded from outside. "I must be off. But it's only au revoir, remember."

She walked with him to the door, and stood watching until the car was lost in sight round a bend of the drive. Then, as she turned back into the hall, the emptiness of the house seemed to close down about her all at once, like a pall.

Amid the manifold duties and emergencies of the last few days she had hardly had time to realize the immensity of her loss. Practical matters had forcibly obtruded themselves upon her consideration-the necessity of providing accommodation for the various relatives who had attended the funeral, the frequent consultations that Major Durward, to all intents and purposes a stranger to the ways of Barrow, had been obliged to hold with her, the reading of the will-all these had combined to keep her in a state of mental and physical alertness which had mercifully precluded retrospective thought.

But now the necessity for doing anything was past; there were no longer any claims upon her time, nothing to distract her, and she had leisure to visualize the full significance of Patrick's death and all that it entailed.

Rather languidly she mounted the stairs to her own room, and drawing up a low chair to the fire, sat staring absently into its glowing heart.

Virtually, she was alone in the world. Even Major Durward, who had been so infinitely kind, was not bound to her by any ties other than those forged of his own friendly feelings. True, he had been Patrick's cousin. But Patrick, although he had made up Sara's whole world, had been entirely unrelated to her.

Her heart throbbed with a sudden rush of intense gratitude towards the man who had so amply fulfilled his trust as guardian, and she glanced up wistfully at the big photograph of him which stood upon the chimney-piece.

Propped against the photo-frame was a square white envelope on which was written: To be given to my ward, Sara Tennant, after my death. The family solicitor had handed it to her the previous day, after the reading of the will, but the demands upon her time and attention had been so many, owing to the number of relatives who temporarily filled the house, that she had laid it on one side for perusal when she should be alone once more.

The sight of the familiar handwriting brought a swift mist of tears to her eyes, and she hesitated a little before opening the sealed envelope.

It was strange to realize that here was some message for her from Patrick himself, but that no matter what the envelope might contain, she would be able to give back no answer, make no reply. The knowledge seemed to set him very far away from her, and for a few moments she sobbed quietly, feeling utterly solitary and alone.

Presently she brushed the tears from her eyes and slit open the flap of the envelope. Inside was a half-sheet of notepaper wrapped about a small old-fashioned key, and on the outer fold was written: "The key of the Chippendale bureau." That was all.

For an instant Sara was puzzled. Then she remembered that amongst Patrick's personal bequests to her had been that of the small mahogany bureau which stood near the window of his bedroom. It had not occurred to her at the time that its contents might have any interest for her; in fact, she had supposed it to be empty. But now she realized that there was evidently something within it which Patrick must have valued, seeing he had guarded the key so carefully and directed its delivery to her through the reliable hands of his solicitor.

Rather glad of anything that might help to occupy her thoughts, she decided to investigate the bureau at once, and accordingly made her way to Patrick's bedroom.

On the threshold she paused, her heart contracting painfully as the spick and span aspect of the room, its ordered absence of any trace of occupation, reminded her that its one-time owner would never again have any further need of it.

Everything in the house seemed to present her grief to her anew, from some fresh angle, forcing comparison of what had been with what was-the wheeled chair, standing vacant in one of the lobbies, the tobacco jar perched upon the chimney-piece, the pot of heliotrope-Patrick's favourite blossom-scenting the library with its fragrance.

And now his room-empty, swept, and garnished like any one of the score or so of spare bedrooms in the house!

With an effort, Sara forced herself to enter it. Crossing to the window, she pulled a chair up to the Chippendale bureau and unlocked it. Then she drew out the sliding desk supports and laid back the flap of polished mahogany that served as a writing-table. She was conscious of a fleeting sense of admiration for the fine-grained wood and for the smooth "feel" of the old brass handles, worn by long usage, then her whole attention was riveted by the three things which were all the contents of the desk-a packet of letters, stained and yellowing with age and tied together with a broad, black ribbon, a jeweller's velvet case stamped with faded gilt lettering, and an envelope addressed to herself in Patrick's handwriting.

Very gently, with that tender reverence we accord to the sad little possessions of our dead, Sara gathered them up and carried them to her own sitting-room. She felt she could not stay to examine them in that strangely empty, lifeless room that had been Patrick's; the terrible, chill silence of it seemed to beat against the very heart of her.

Laying aside the jeweller

's case and the package of letters, she opened the envelope which bore her name and drew out a folded sheet of paper, covered with Patrick's small, characteristic writing. Impulsively she brushed it with her lips, then, leaning back in her chair, began to read, her expression growing curiously intent as she absorbed the contents of the letter. Once she smiled, and more than once a sudden rush of unbidden tears blurred the closely written lines in front of her.

"When you receive this, little pal Sara"-ran the letter-"I shall have done with this world. Except that it means leaving you, my dear, I shall be glad to go, for I'm a very tired man. So, when it comes, you must try not to grudge me my 'long leave.' But there are several things you ought to know, and which I want you to know, yet I have never been able to bring myself to speak of them to you. To tell you about them meant digging into the past-and very often there is a hot coal lingering in the heart of a dead fire that is apt to burn the fingers of whoever rakes out the ashes. Frankly, then, I funked it. But now the time has come when I can't put it off any longer.

"Little old pal, have you ever wondered why I loved you so much-why you stood so close to my heart? I used to tease you and say it was because we were no relation to each other, didn't I? If you had been really my niece, proper respect (on your part, of course, for your aged uncle!) and the barrier of a generation would have set us the usual miles apart. But there was never anything of that with us, was there? I bullied you, I know, when you needed it, but we were always comrades. And to me, you were something more than a comrade, something almost sacred and always adorable-the child of the woman I loved.

"For we should have been married, Sara, your mother and I, had I not been a poor man. We were engaged, but at that time, I was only a younger son, with a younger son's meager portion, and the prospect of my falling heir to Barrow seemed of all things the most improbable. And Pauline Malincourt, your mother, had been taught to abhor the idea of living on small means-trained to regard her beauty and breeding as marketable assets, to go to the highest bidder. For, although her parents came of fine old stock-there's no better blood in England than the Malincourt strain, my dear-they were deadly hard-up. So hard-up, that when they died-as the result of a carriage accident which occurred a week after Pauline's marriage-they left nothing behind them but debts which your father liquidated.

"Of your father, Caleb Tennant, the millionaire, I will not write, seeing that, after all, you are his child. It is enough to say that he was a hard man, and that he and your mother led a very unhappy life together, so unhappy that at last she left him, choosing rather to live in utter poverty than remain with him. He never forgave her for leaving him, and when he died, he willed every penny he possessed to some scoundrelly cousin of his-who is presumably enjoying the inheritance which should have been yours.

"That is your family history, my dear, and it is right that you should know it-and know what you have to fight against. To be a Malincourt is at once to have a curse and a blessing hung round your neck. The Malincourts were originally of French extraction-descendants of the haute noblesse of old France-cursed with the devil's own pride and passionate self-will, and blessed with looks and brains and charm above the average. They never bend; they break sooner. And I think you've got the lot, Sara-the full inheritance.

"Your mother was a true Malincourt. She could not bend, and when things went awry, she broke.

"You must never think hardly of her, for she had been brought up in that atmosphere of almost desperate pride which is too frequently the curse of the poverty-stricken aristocrat. She made a ghastly mistake, and paid for it afterwards every day of her life. And she was urged into it by her father, who declined to recognize me in any way, and by her mother, who made her life at home a simple hell-as a clever society woman can make of any young girl's life if she chooses.

"Just before she died, she sent for me and gave you into my care, begging me to shield you from spoiling your life as she had spoiled hers.

"I've done what I could. You are at least independent. No one can drive you with the spur of poverty into selling yourself, as she was driven. But there are a hundred other rocks in life against which you may wreck your happiness, and remember, in the long run, you sink or swim by your own force of character.

"And when love comes to you, as it will come,-for no woman with your eyes and your mouth ever yet lived a loveless life!-never forget that it is the biggest thing in the world, the one altogether good and perfect gift. Don't let any twopenny-halfpenny considerations of worldly advantage influence you, nor the tittle-tattle of other folks, and even if it seems that something insurmountable lies between you and the fulfillment of love, go over it, or round it, or through it! If it's a real love, your faith must be big enough to remove the mountains in the way-or to go over them.

"The package of letters you will find in the bureau were those your mother wrote to me during the few short weeks we belonged to each other. I'm a sentimental old fool, and I've never been able to bring myself to burn them. Will you do this for me?

"In the little velvet case you will find her miniature, which I give to you. It is very like her-and like you, too, for you resemble her wonderfully in appearance. Often, to look at you has made my heart ache; sometimes it almost seemed as if the years had rolled back and Pauline herself stood before me.

"And now that the order for release is on its way to me, it is rather wonderful to reflect that in a few weeks-a few days, perhaps-I shall be seeing her again. . . .

"Good-bye, little pal of mine. We've had some good times together, haven't we?

"Your devoted, PATRICK."

Sara sat very still, the letter clasped in her hand. She had always secretly believed that some long-dead romance lay behind Patrick's bachelorhood, but she had never suspected that her own mother had been the woman he had loved.

The knowledge illumined all the past with a fresh light, investing it with a tender, reminiscent sentiment. It was easy now to understand the almost idyllic atmosphere Patrick had infused into their life together. Sara recognized it as the outcome of a love and fidelity as beautiful and devoted as it is rare. Patrick's love for her mother had partaken of the enduring qualities of the great passions of history. Paolo and Francesca, Abelard and Heloise-even they could have known no deeper, no more lasting love than that of Patrick Lovell for Pauline.

The love-letters of the dead woman lay on Sara's lap, still tied together with the black ribbon which Patrick's fingers must have knotted round them. There were only six of them-half-a-dozen memories of a love that had come hopelessly to grief-tangible memories which her lover had never had the heart to destroy.

Sara handled them caressingly, these few, pathetic records of a bygone passion, and at length, with hands that shook a little, she removed the ribbon that bound them together. Where it had lain, preserving the strip of paper beneath it from contact with the dust, bands of white traversed the faint discoloration which time had worked upon the outermost envelopes-mutely witnessing to the long years that had passed away since the letters had been penned in the first rapturous glow of hot young love.

Slowly, with a rather wistful sense of regret that it must needs be done, Sara dropped them one by one, unread, into the fire, and watched them flare up with a sudden spurt of flame, then curl and shrivel into dead, grey ash-those last links with the romance of his youth which Patrick had treasured so long and faithfully.

She wondered what manner of woman her mother could have been to inspire so great a love that even her own unfaith had failed to sour it. Her childish recollection, blurred by the passage of years, was of a white-faced, rather haggard-looking woman with deep-set, haunted eyes and a bitter mouth, but whose rare smile, when it came, was so enchanting that it wiped out, for the moment, all remembrance of the harsh lines which hardened her face when in repose.

With eager hands the girl picked up the little velvet case that held the miniature, and snapped open the lid. The painting within, rimmed in old paste, was of a girl in her early twenties. The face was oval, with a small, pointed chin and a vivid red mouth, curling up at the corners. There was little colour in the cheeks, and the black hair and extraordinarily dark eyes served to enhance the creamy pallor of the skin. It was not altogether an English face; the cheek-bones were too high, and there was a definiteness of colouring, a decisive sharpness of outline in the piquant features, not often found in a purely English type.

Seen thus, the face looked strangely familiar to Sara, and yet no memory of hers could recall her mother as she must have been at the time this portrait was painted.

The miniature still in her hand, she moved hesitatingly to a mirror, so placed that the light from the window fell full upon her as she faced it. In a moment the odd sense of familiarity was explained. There, looking back at her from the mirror, was the same sharply angled face, the same warm ivory pallor of complexion, accentuated by raven hair and black, sombre eyes. What was it Patrick had written? "No woman with your eyes and your mouth ever yet lived a loveless life."

With a curious deliberation, Sara examined the features in question. The eyes were long, and the lids, opaquely white and fringed with jet-black lashes, slanted downwards a little at the outer corners, bestowing a curiously intense expression, such as one sometimes sees in the eyes of an actor, and the mouth was the same vividly scarlet mouth of the face in the miniature, at once passionate and sensitive.

The French strain in the Malincourt family had reproduced itself indubitably, both in the appearance of Pauline and of Pauline's daughter. Would the mother's tragedy, fruit of her singular charm and of a pride which had accorded love but a secondary place in her scheme of life, also be re-enacted in the case of the daughter? It seemed almost as though Patrick must have had pre-vision of some like fiery ordeal though which his "little old pal" might have to pass, so urgent had been the warning he had uttered.

Sara shivered, as if she, too, felt a prescience of coming disaster. It was as though a shadow had fallen across her path, a shadow of which the substance lay hidden, shrouded in the mists which veil the future.

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