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   Chapter 4 ELISABETH—AND HER SON

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 28799

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The entrance to Barrow Court was somewhat forbidding. A flight of shallow granite steps, flanked by balustrades of the same austere substance, terminating in huge, rough-hewn pillars, led up to an enormous door of ancient oak, studded with nails-destined, it would seem, to resist the onslaught of an armed multitude. The sternness of its aspect, when the great door was closed, seemed to add an increased warmth to the suggestion of welcome it conveyed when, as now, it was swung hospitably open, emitting a ruddy glow of firelight from the hall beyond.

Sara was standing at the top of the granite steps, waiting to greet the Durwards, whose approach was already heralded by the humming of a motor far down the avenue.

A faint regret disquieted her. This was the last-the very last-time she would stand at the head of those stairs in the capacity of a hostess welcoming her guests; and even now her position there was merely an honorary one! In a few minutes, when Mrs. Durward should step across the threshold, it was she who would be transformed into the hostess, while Sara would have to take her place as a simple guest in the house which for twelve years had been her home.

Thrusting the thought determinedly aside, she watched the big limousine swing smoothly round the curve of the drive and pull up in front of the house, and there was no trace of reluctance in the smile of greeting which she summoned up for Major Durward's benefit as he alighted and came towards her with outstretched hand.

"But where are the others?" asked Sara, seeing that the chauffeur immediately headed the car for the garage.

"They're coming along on foot," explained Durward. "Elisabeth declared they should see nothing of the place cooped up in the car, so they got out at the lodge and are walking across the park."

Sara preceded him into the hall, and they stood chatting together by the tea-table until the sound of voices announced the arrival of the rest of the party.

"Here they are!" exclaimed Durward, hurrying forward to meet them, while Sara followed a trifle hesitatingly, conscious of a sudden accession of shyness.

Notwithstanding the charming letter she had received from Mrs. Durward, begging her to remain at Barrow Court exactly as long as it suited her, now that the moment had come which would actually install the new mistress of the Court, she began to feel as though her continued presence there might be regarded rather in the light of an intrusion.

Mrs. Durward's letter might very well have been dictated only by a certain superficial politeness, or, even, solely at the instance of her husband, and it was conceivable that the writer would be none too pleased that her invitation had been so literally interpreted.

In the course of a few seconds of time Sara contrived to work herself up into a condition bordering upon panic. And then a very low contralto voice, indescribably sweet, and with an audacious ripple of laughter running through it, swept all her scruples into the rubbish heap. There was no doubting the sincerity of the speaker.

"It was so nice of you not to run away, Miss Tennant." As she spoke, Mrs. Durward shook hands cordially. "Poor Geoffrey couldn't help being the heir, you know, and if you'd refused to stay, he'd have felt just like the villain in a cinema film. You've saved us from becoming the crawling, self-reproachful wretches." Then she turned and beckoned to her son. "This is Tim," she said simply, but the quality of her voice was very much as though she had announced: "This is the sun, and moon, and stars."

As mother and son stood side by side, Sara's first impression was that she had never seen two more beautiful people. They were both tall, and a kind of radiance seemed to envelope them-a glory imparted by the sheer force of perfect symmetry and health-and, in the case of the former of the two, there was an added charm in a certain little air of stateliness and distinction which characterized her movements.

Patrick's reminiscent comment on Elisabeth Durward recalled itself to Sara's mind: "I think she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen," and she recognized that almost any one might have truthfully subscribed to the same opinion.

Mrs. Durward must have been at least forty years of age-arguing from the presence of the six foot of young manhood whom she called son-but her appearance was still that of a woman who had not long passed her thirtieth milestone. The supple lines of her figure held the merest suggestion of maturity in their gracious curves, and the rich chestnut hair, swathed round her small, fine head, gleamed with the sheen which only youth or immense vitality bestows. Her skin was of that almost dazzling purity which is so often found in conjunction with reddish hair, and the defect of over-light brows and lashes, which not infrequently mars the type, was conspicuously absent. Her eyes were arresting. They were of a deep, hyacinth blue, very luminous and soft, and quite beautiful. But they held a curiously veiled expression-a something guarded and inscrutable-as though they hid some secret inner knowledge sentinelled from the world at large.

Sara, meeting their still, enigmatic gaze, was subtly conscious of an odd sense of repulsion, almost amounting to dread, and then Elisabeth, making some trivial observation as she moved nearer to the fire, smiled across at her, and, in the extraordinary charm of her smile, the momentary sensation of fear was forgotten.

Nevertheless, it was with a feeling of relief that Sara encountered the gay, frank glance of the son.

Tim Durward, though dowered to the full with his mother's beauty, had yet been effectually preserved from the misfortune of being an effeminate repetition of her. In him, Elisabeth's glowing auburn colouring had sobered to a steady brown-evidenced in the crisp, curly hair and sun-tanned skin; and the misty hyacinth-blue of her eyes had hardened in the eyes of her son into the clear, bright azure of the sea, whist the beautiful contours of her face, repeated in his, had strengthened into a fine young virility.

"I can't cure mother of introducing me as if I were the Lord Mayor," he murmured plaintively to Sara as they sat down to tea. "I suppose it's the penalty of being an only son."

"Nothing of the sort," asserted Elisabeth composedly. "Naturally I'm pleased with you-you're so absurdly like me. I always look upon you in the light of a perpetual compliment, because you've elected to grow up like me instead of like Geoffrey"-nodding towards her husband. "After all, you had us both to choose from."

Tim shouted with delight.

"Listen to her, Miss Tennant! And for years I've been mistaking mere vulgar female vanity for maternal solicitude."

"Anyway, you're a very poor compliment," threw in Major Durward, with an expressive glance at his wife's beautiful face. It was obvious that he worshipped her, and she smiled across at him, blushing adorably, just like a girl of sixteen.

Tim turned to Sara with a grimace.

"It's a great trial, Miss Tennant, to be blessed with two parents-"

"It's quite usual," interpolated Geoffrey mildly.

"Two parents," continued Tim, firmly ignoring him, "who are hopelessly, besottedly in love with each other. Instead of being-as I ought to be-the apple of their eye-of both their eyes-I'm merely the shadowy third."

Sara surveyed his goodly proportions consideringly.

"No one would have suspected it," she assured him; and Tim grinned appreciatively.

"If you stay with us long," he replied, "as I hope"-impressively-"you will, you'll soon perceive how utterly I am neglected. Perhaps"-his face brightening-"you may be moved to take pity on my solitude-quite frequently."

"Tim, stop being an idiot," interposed his mother placidly, holding out her cup, "and ask Miss Tennant to give me another lump of sugar."

The advent of the Durwards, breaking in upon her enforced solitude, helped very considerably to arouse Sara from the natural depression into which she had fallen after Patrick's death. With their absurdly large share of good looks, their charmingly obvious attachment to each other, and their enthusiastic, unconventional hospitality towards such an utter stranger as herself, devoid of any real claim upon them, she found the trio unexpectedly interesting and delightful. They had hailed her as a friend, and her frank, warm-hearted nature responded instantly, speedily according each of them a special niche in her regard. She felt as though Providence had suddenly endowed her with a whole family-"all complete and ready for use," as Tim cheerfully observed-and the reaction from the oppressive consciousness of being entirely alone in the world acted like a tonic.

The first brief sentiment of aversion which she had experienced towards Elisabeth melted like snow in sunshine under the daily charm of her companionship; and though the hyacinth eyes held always in their depths that strange suggestion of mystery, Sara grew to believe it must be merely some curious effect incidental to the colour and shape of the eyes themselves, rather than an indication of the soul that looked out of them.

There was something perennially captivating about Elisabeth. An atmosphere of romance enveloped her, engendering continuous interest and surmise, and Sara found it wholly impossible to view her from an ordinary prosaic standpoint. Occasionally she would recall the fact that Mrs. Durward was in reality a woman of over forty, mother of a grown-up son who, according to all the usages of custom, should be settling down into the drab and placid backwater of middle age, but she realized that the description went ludicrously wide of the mark.

There was nothing in the least drab about Elisabeth, nor would there ever be. She was full of colour and brilliance, reminding one of a great glowing-hearted rose in its prime.

Part of her charm, undoubtedly, lay in her attitude towards husband and son. She was still as romantically in love with Major Durward as any girl in her teens, and she adored Tim quite openly.

Inevitably, perhaps, there was a touch of the spoilt woman about her, since both men combined to indulge her in every whim. Nevertheless, there was nothing either small or petty in her willfulness. It was rather the superb, stately arrogance of a queen, and she was kindness itself to Sara.

But the largest share of credit in restoring the latter to a more normal and less highly strung condition was due to Tim, who gravitated towards her with the facility common to natural man when he finds himself for any length of time under the same roof with an attractive young person of the opposite sex. He had an engaging habit of appearing at the door of Sara's sitting-room with an ingratiating: "I say, may I come in for a yarn?" And, upon receiving permission, he would establish himself on the hearth-rug at her feet and proceed to prattle to her about his own affairs, much as a brother might have done to a favourite sister, and with an equal assurance that his confidences would be met with sympathetic interest.

"What are you going to do with yourself, Tim?" asked Sara one day, as he sprawled in blissful indolence on the great bearskin in front of her fire, pulling happily at a beloved old pipe.

"Do with myself?" he repeated. "What do you mean? I'm doing very comfortably just at present"-glancing round him appreciatively.

"I mean-what are you going to be? Aren't you going to enter any profession?"

Tim sat up suddenly, removing his pipe from his mouth.

"No," he said shortly.

"But why not? You can't slack about here for ever, doing nothing. I should have thought you would have gone into the Army, like your father."

His blue eyes hardened.

"That's what I wanted to do," he said gruffly. "But the mother wouldn't hear of it."

Sara could sense the pain in his suddenly roughened tones.

"But why? You'd make a splendid soldier, Tim"-eyeing his long length affectionately.

"I should have loved it," he said wistfully. "I wanted it more than anything. But mother worried so frightfully whenever I suggested the idea that I had to give it up. I'm to learn to be a landowner and squire and all that sort of tosh instead."

"But that could come later."

Tim shrugged his shoulders.

"Of course it could. But mother refused point-blank to let me go to Sandhurst. So now, unless a war crops up-and it doesn't look as though there's much chance of that!-I'm out of the running. But if it ever does, Sara"-he laid his hand eagerly on her knee-"I swear I'll be one of the first to volunteer. I was a fool to give in to the mother over the matter, only she was simply making herself ill about it, and, of course, I couldn't stand that."

Sara wondered why Mrs. Durward should have interfered to prevent her son from following what was obviously his natural bent. It would have seemed almost inevitable that, as a soldier's son, he should enter one or other of the Services, and instead, here he was, stranded in a little country backwater, simply eating his heart out. Mentally she determined to broach the subject to Elisabeth as soon as an opportunity presented itself; but for the moment she skillfully drew the conversation away from what was evidently a sore subject, and suggested that Tim should accompany her into Fallowdene, where she had an errand at the post office. He assented eagerly, with a shake of his broad shoulders as though to rid himself of the disagreeable burden of his thoughts.

From the window of his wife's sitting-room Major Durward watched the two as they started on their way to the village, evidently on the best of terms with one another, a placid smile spreading beneficently over his face as they vanished round the corner of the shrubbery.

"Anything in it, do you think?" he asked, seeing that Elisabeth's gaze had pursued the same course.

"It's impossible to say," she answered quietly. "Tim imagines himself to be falling in love, I don't doubt; but at twenty-two a boy imagines himself in love with half the girls he meets."

"I didn't," declared Geoffrey promptly. "I fell in love with you at the mature age of nineteen-and I never fell out again."

Elisabeth flashed him a charming smile.

"Perhaps Tim may follow in your footsteps, then," she suggested

serenely.

"Well, would you be pleased?" persisted her husband, jerking his head explanatorily in the direction in which Sara and Tim had disappeared.

"I shall always be pleased with the woman who makes Tim happy," she answered simply.

Durward was silent a moment; then he returned to the attack.

"She's a very pretty young woman, don't you think?"

"Sara? No, I shouldn't call her exactly pretty. Her face is too thin, and strong, and eager. But she is a very uncommon type-like a black and white etching, and immensely attractive."

It was several days before Sara was able to introduce the topic of Tim's profession, but she contrived it one afternoon when she and Elisabeth were sitting together awaiting the return of the two men for tea.

"It will be profession enough for Tim to look after the property," Elisabeth made answer. "He can act as agent for his father to some extent, and relieve him of a great deal of necessary business that has to be transacted."

She spoke with a certain finality which made it difficult to pursue the subject, but Sara, remembering Tim's suddenly hard young eyes, persisted.

"It's a pity he cannot go into the Army-he's so keen on it," she suggested tentatively.

A curious change came over Elisabeth's face. It seemed to Sara as though a veil had descended, from behind which the inscrutable eyes were watching her warily. But the response was given lightly enough.

"Oh, one of the family in the Service is enough. I should see so little of my Tim if he became a soldier-only an occasional 'leave.'"

"He would make a very good soldier," said Sara. "To my mind, it's the finest profession in the world for any man."

"Do you think so?" Elisabeth spoke coldly. "There are many risks attached to it."

Sara experienced a revulsion of feeling; she had not expected Elisabeth to be of the fearful type of woman. Women of splendid physique and abounding vitality are rarely obsessed by craven apprehensions.

"I don't think the risks would count with Tim," she said warmly. "He has any amount of pluck." And then she stared at Elisabeth in amazement. A sudden haggardness had overspread the elder woman's face, the faint shell-pink that usually flushed her cheeks draining away and leaving them milk-white.

"Yes," she replied in stifled tones. "I don't suppose Tim's a coward. But"-more lightly-"I think I am. I-don't think I care for the Army as a profession. Tim is my only child," she added self-excusingly. "I can't let him run risks-of any kind."

As she spoke, an odd foreboding seized hold of Sara. It was as though the secret dread of something-she could not tell what-which held the mother had communicated itself to her.

She shivered. Then, the impression fading as quickly as it had come, she spoke defiantly, as if trying to reassure herself.

"There aren't many risks in these piping times of peace. Soldiers don't die in battle nowadays; they retire on a pension."

"Die in battle! Did you think I was afraid of that?" There was a sudden fierce contempt in Elisabeth's voice.

Sara looked at her with astonishment.

"Weren't you?" she said hesitatingly.

Elisabeth seemed about to make some passionate rejoinder. Then, all at once, she checked herself, and again Sara was conscious of that curiously secretive expression in her eyes, as though she were on guard.

"There are many things worse than death," she said evasively, and deliberately turned the conversation into other channels.

During the days that followed, Sara became aware of a faintly perceptible difference in her relations with Elisabeth. The latter was still just as charming as ever, but she seemed, in some inexplicable way, to have set a limit to their intimacy-defined a boundary line which she never intended to be overstepped.

It was as though she felt that she had allowed Sara to approach too nearly some inner sanctum which she had hitherto guarded securely from all intrusion, and now hastened to erect a barricade against a repetition of the offence.

More than once, lately, Sara had broached the subject of her impending departure from Barrow, only to have the suggestion incontinently brushed aside by Major Durward, who declared that he declined to discuss any such disagreeable topic. But now, sensitively conscious that she had troubled Elisabeth's peace in some way, she decided to make definite arrangements regarding her immediate future.

She was agreeably surprised, when she propounded her idea, to find Mrs. Durward seemed quite as unwilling to part with her as were both her husband and son. Apparently the alteration in her manner, with its curiously augmented reticence, was no indication of any personal antipathy, and Sara felt proportionately relieved, although somewhat mystified.

"We shall all miss you," averred Elisabeth, and there was absolute sincerity in her tones. "I don't see why you need be in such a hurry to run away from us." And Geoffrey and Tim chorused approval.

Sara beamed upon them all with humid eyes.

"It's dear of you to want me to stay with you," she declared. "But, don't you see, I must live my own life-have a roof-tree of my own? I can't just sit down comfortably in the shade of yours."

"Pushful young woman!" chaffed Geoffrey. "Well, I can see your mind is made up. So what are your plans? Let's hear them."

"I thought of taking rooms for a while with some really nice people-gentlefolk who wanted to take a paying guest-"

"Poor but honest, in fact," supplemented Geoffrey.

Sara nodded.

"Yes. You see"-smiling-"you people have spoiled me for living alone, and as I'm really rather a solitary individual, I must find a little niche for myself somewhere." She unfolded a letter she was holding. "I thought I should like to go near the sea-to some quite tiny country place at the back of beyond. And I think I've found just the thing. I saw an advertisement for a paying guest-of the female persuasion-so I replied to it, and I've just had an answer to my letter. It's from a doctor man-a Dr. Selwyn, at Monkshaven-who has an invalid wife and one daughter, and he writes such an original kind of epistle that I'm sure I should like him."

Geoffrey held out his hand for the letter, running his eyes down its contents, while his wife, receiving an assenting nod from Sara in response to her "May I?" looked over his shoulder.

Only Tim appeared to take no interest in the matter, but remained standing rather aloof, staring out of the window, his back to the trio grouped around the hearth.

"'Household . . . myself, wife, one daughter,'" muttered Geoffrey. "Um-um-'quarter of a mile from the sea'-um--'As you will have guessed from the fact of my advertising'"-here he began to read aloud-"'we are not too lavishly blessed with this world's goods. Our house is roomy and comfortable, though abominably furnished. But I can guarantee the climate, and there are plenty of nicer people than ourselves in the neighbourhood. It wouldn't be fitting for me to blow our own particular household trumpet-nor, to tell the truth, is it always calculated to give forth melodious sounds; but if the other considerations I have mentioned commend themselves to you, I suggest that you come down and make trial of us.'"

"Don't you think he sounds just delightful?" queried Sara.

Manlike, Geoffrey shook his head disapprovingly.

"No, I don't," he said decisively. "That's the most unbusinesslike letter I've ever read."

"I like it very much," announced Elisabeth with equal decision. "The man writes just as he thinks-perfectly frankly and naturally. I should go and give them a trial as he suggests. Sara, if I were you."

"That's what I feel inclined to do," replied Sara. "I thought it a delicious letter."

Geoffrey shrugged his shoulders resignedly.

"Then, of course, if you two women have made up your minds that the man's a natural saint, I may as well hold my peace. What's the fellow's address?-I'll look him up in the Medical Directory. Richard Selwyn, Sunnyside, Monkshaven-that right?"

He departed to the library in search of Dr. Selywn's credentials, presently returning with a somewhat rueful grin on his face.

"He seems all right-rather a clever man, judging by his degrees and the appointments he has held," he acknowledged grudgingly.

"I'm sure he's all right, asserted Sara firmly.

"Although I don't understand why such a good man at his job should be practicing in a little one-horse place like Monkshaven," retorted Geoffrey maliciously.

"Probably he went there on account of his wife's health," suggested Elisabeth. "He says she is an invalid."

"Oh, well"-Geoffrey yielded unwillingly-"I suppose you'll go, Sara. But if the experiment isn't a success you must come back to us at once. Is that a bargain?"

Sara hesitated.

"Promise," commanded Geoffrey. "Or"-firmly-"I'm hanged if we let you go at all."

"Very well," agreed Sara meekly. "I'll promise."

"I hope the experiment will be an utter failure," observed Tim, later on, when he and Sara were alone together. He spoke with an oddly curt-almost inimical-inflection in his voice.

"Now that's unkind of you, Tim," she protested smilingly. "I thought you were a good enough pal not to want to chortle over me-as I know Geoffrey will-should the thing turn out a frost!"

"Well, I'm not, then," he returned roughly.

The churlish tones were so unlike Tim that Sara looked up at him in some amazement. He was staring down at her with a strange, awakened expression in his eyes; his face was very white and his mouth working.

With a sudden apprehension of what was impending, she sprang up, stretching out her hand as though to ward it off.

"No-no, Tim. It isn't-don't say it's that--"

He caught her hand and held it between both his.

"But it is that," he said, speaking very fast, the serenity of his face all broken up by the surge of emotion that had gripped him. "It is that. I love you. I didn't know it till you spoke of going away. Sara-"

"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" She broke in hastily. "Don't say any more, Tim-please don't!"

In the silence that followed the two young faces peered at each other-the one desperate with love, the other full of infinite regret and pleading.

At last-

"It's no use, then?" said Tim dully. "You don't care?"

"I'm afraid I don't-not like that. I thought we were friends-just friends, Tim," she urged.

Tim lifted his head, and she saw that somehow, in the last few minutes, he had grown suddenly older. His gay, smiling mouth had set itself sternly; the beautiful boyish face had become a man's.

"I thought so, too," he said gently. "But I know now that what I feel for you isn't friendship. It's"-with a short, grim laugh-"something much more than that. Tell me, Sara-will there ever be any chance for me?"

She hesitated. She was so genuinely fond of him that she hated to give him pain. Looking at him, standing before her in his splendid young manhood, she wondered irritably why she didn't love him. He was pre-eminently loveable.

He caught eagerly at her hesitation.

"Don't answer me now!" he said swiftly. "I'll wait-give me a chance. I can't take no . . . I won't take it!" he went on masterfully. "I love you!" Impetuously he slipped his strong young arms about her and kissed her on the mouth.

The previous moment she had been all softness and regret, but now, at the sudden passion in his voice, something within her recoiled violently, repudiating the claim his love had made upon her.

Sara was the last woman in the world to be taken by storm. She was too individual, her sense of personal independence too strongly developed, for her ever to be swept off her feet by a passion to which her own heart offered no response. Instead, it roused her to a definite consciousness of opposition, and she drew herself away from Tim's eager arms with a decision there was no mistaking.

"I'm sorry, Tim," she said quietly. "But it's no good pretending I'm in love with you. I'm not."

He looked at her with moody, dissatisfied eyes.

"I've spoken too soon," he said. "I should have waited. Only I was afraid."

"Afraid?"

"Yes." He spoke uncertainly. "I've had a feeling that if I let you go, you'll meet some man down there, at Monkshaven, who'll want to marry you . . . And I shall lose you! . . . Oh, Sara! I don't ask you to say you love me-yet. Say that you'll marry me . . . I'd teach you the rest-you'd learn to love me."

But that fierce, unpremeditated kiss-the first lover's kiss that she had known-had endowed her with a sudden clarity of vision.

"No," she answered steadily. "I don't know much about love, Tim, but I'm very sure it's no use trying to manufacture it to order, and-listen, Tim, dear," the pain in his face making her suddenly all tenderness again-"if I married you, and afterwards you couldn't teach me as you think you could, we should only be wretched together."

"I could never be wretched if you were my wife," he answered doggedly. "I've love enough for two."

She shook her head.

"No, Tim. Don't let's spoil a good friendship by turning it into a one-sided love-affair."

He smiled rather grimly.

"I'm afraid it's too late to prevent that," he said drily. "But I won't worry you any more now, dear. Only-I'm not going to accept your answer as final."

"I wish you would," she urged.

He looked at her curiously. "No man who loves you, Sara, is going to give you up very easily," he averred. Then, after a moment: "you'll let me write to you sometimes?"

She nodded soberly.

"Yes-but not love-letters, Tim."

"No-not love-letters."

He lifted her hands and kissed first one and then the other. Then, with his head well up and his shoulders squared, he went away.

But the sea-blue eyes that had been wont to look out on the world so gaily had suddenly lost their care-free bravery. They were the eyes of a man who has looked for the first time into the radiant, sorrowful face of Love, and read therein all the possibilities-the glory and the pain and the supreme happiness-which Love holds.

And Sara, standing alone and regretful that the friend had been lost in the lover, never guessed that Tim's love was a thread which was destined to cross and re-cross those other threads held by the fingers of Fate until it had tangled the whole fabric of her life.

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