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The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 20201

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Oldhampton! Oldhampton! Change here for Motchley and Monkshaven!"

It was with a sigh of relief that Sara, in obedience to the warning raucously intoned by a hurrying porter, vacated her seat in the railway compartment in which she had travelled from Fallowdene. Her companions on the journey had been an elderly spinster and her maid, and as the former had insisted upon the exclusion of every breath of outside air, Sara felt half-suffocated by the time they ran into Oldhampton Junction. The Monkshaven train was already standing in the station, and, commissioning a porter to transfer her luggage, she sauntered leisurely along the platform, searching vainly for an empty compartment, where the regulation of the supply of oxygen would not depend upon the caprice of an old maid.

The train appeared to be very full, but at last she espied a first-class smoking carriage which boasted but a single occupant-a man in the far corner, half-hidden behind the newspaper he was holding-and, tipping her porter, she stepped into the compartment and busied herself bestowing her hand-baggage in the rack.

The man in the corner abruptly lowered his newspaper.

"This be a smoker," he remarked significantly.

Sara turned at the sound of his voice. The unwelcoming tones made it abundantly clear that the remainder of his thought ran: "And you've no business to get into it." A spark of amusement lit itself in her eyes.

"The railway company indicate as much on the window," she replied placidly, with a glance towards the Smoking Carriage label pasted against the pane.

There came no response, unless an irritated crackling of newspaper could be regarded as such-and the next moment, to the accompaniment of much banging of doors and a final shout of: "Stand away there!" the train began to move slowly out of the station.

Sara sat down with a sigh of relief that she had escaped her former travelling companions, with their unpleasant predilection for a vitiated atmosphere, and her thoughts wandered idly to the consideration of the man in the corner, to whom she was obviously an equally unwelcome fellow-passenger.

He had retired once more behind his newspaper, and practically all that was offered for her contemplation consisted of a pair of knee-breeches and well-cut leather leggings and two strong-looking, sun-tanned hands. These latter intrigued Sara considerably-their long, sensitive fingers and short, well-kept nails according curiously with their sunburnt suggestion of great physical strength and an outdoor life. She wished their owner would see fit to lower his newspaper once more, since her momentary glimpse of his face had supplied her with but little idea of his personality. And the hands, so full of contradictory suggestion, aroused her interest.

As though in response to her thoughts, the newspaper suddenly crackled down on to its owner's knees.

"I have every intention of smoking," he announced aggressively. "This is a smoking carriage."

Sara, supported by the recollection of a dainty little gold and enamel affair in her hand-bag, filled with some very special Russian cigarettes, smiled amiably.

"I know it is," she replied in unruffled tones. "That's why I got in. I, too, have every intention of smoking."

He stared at her in silence for a moment, then, without further comment, produced a pipe and tobacco pouch from the depths of a pocket, and proceeded to fill the former, carefully pressing down the tobacco with the tip of one of those slender, capable-looking fingers.

Sara observed him quickly. As he lounged there indolently in his corner, she was aware of a subtle combination of strength and fine tempering in the long, supple lines of his limbs-something that suggested the quality of steel, hard, yet pliant. He had a lean, hard-bitten face, tanned by exposure to the sun and wind, and the clean-shaven lips met with a curious suggestion of bitter reticence in their firm closing. His hair was brown-"plain brown" as Sara mentally characterized it-but it had a redeeming kink in it and the crispness of splendid vitality. The eyes beneath the straight, rather frowning brows were hazel, and, even in the brief space of time occupied by the inimical colloquy of a few moments ago, Sara had been struck by the peculiar intensity of their regard-an odd depth and brilliance only occasionally to be met with, and then preferably in those eyes which are a somewhat light grey in colour and ringed round the outer edge of the iris with a deeper tint.

The flare of a match roused her from her half-idle, half-interested contemplation of her fellow-passenger, and, as he lit his pipe, she was sharply conscious that his oddly luminous eyes were regarding her with a glint of irony in their depths.

Instantly she recalled his hostile reception of her entrance into the compartment, and the defiantly given explanation she had tendered in return.

Very deliberately she extracted her cigarette-case from her bag and selected a cigarette, only to discover that she had not supplied herself with a matchbox. She hunted assiduously amongst the assortment of odds and ends the bag contained, but in vain, and finally, a little nettled that her companion made no attempt to supply the obvious deficiency, she looked up to find that he was once more, to all appearances, completely absorbed in his newspaper.

Sara regarded him with indignation; in her own mind she was perfectly convinced that he was aware of her quandary and had no mind to help her out of it. Evidently he had not forgiven her intrusion into his solitude.

"Boor!" she ejaculated mentally. Then, aloud, and with considerable acerbity:

"Could you oblige me with a match?"

With no show of alacrity, and with complete indifference of manner, he produced a matchbox and handed it to her, immediately reverting to his newspaper as though considerably bored by the interruption.

Sara flushed, and, having lit her cigarette, tendered him his matchbox with an icy little word of thanks.

Apparently, however, he was quite unashamed of his churlishness, for he accepted the box without troubling to raise his eyes from the page he was reading, and the remainder of the journey to Monkshaven was accomplished in an atmosphere that bristled with hostility.

As the train slowed up into the station, it became evident to Sara that Monkshaven was also the destination of her travelling companion, for he proceeded with great deliberation to fold up his newspaper and to hoist his suit-case down from the rack. It did not seem to occur to him to proffer his service to Sara, who was struggling with her own hand-luggage, and the instant the train came to a standstill he opened the door of the compartment, stopped out on to the platform, and marched away.

A gleam of amusement crossed her face.

"I wonder who he is?" she reflected, as she followed in the wake of a porter in search of her trunks. "He certainly needs a lesson in manners."

Within herself she registered a vindictive vow that, should the circumstances of her residence in Monkshaven afford the opportunity, she would endeavour to give him one.

Monkshaven was but a tiny little station, and it was soon apparent that no conveyance of any kind had been sent to meet her.

"No, there would be none," opined the porter of whom she inquired. "Dr. Selwyn keeps naught but a little pony-trap, and he's most times using it himself. But there's a 'bus from the Cliff Hotel meets all trains, miss, and"-with pride-"there's a station keb."

In a few minutes Sara was the proud-and thankful-occupant of the "station keb," and, after bumping over the cobbles with which the station yard was paved, she found herself being driven in leisurely fashion through the high street of the little town, whilst her driver, sitting sideways on his box, indicated the points of interest with his whip as they went along.

Presently the cab turned out of the town and began the ascent of a steep hill, and as they climbed the winding road, Sara found that she could glimpse the sea, rippling greyly beyond the town, and tufted with little bunches of spume whipped into being by the keen March wind. The town itself spread out before her, an assemblage of red and grey tiled roofs sloping downwards to the curve of the bay, while, on the right, a bold promontory thrust itself into the sea, grimly resisting the perpetual onslaught of the wave. Through the waning light of the winter's afternoon, Sara could discern the outline of a house limned against the dark background of woods that crowned it. Linked to the jutting headland, a long range of sea-washed cliffs stretched as far as the eyes could reach.

"That be Monk's Cliff," vouchsafed the driver conversationally. "Bit of a lonesome place for folks to choose to live at, ain't it?"

"Who lives there?" asked Sara with interest.

"Gentleman of the name of Trent-queer kind of bloke he must be, too, if all's true they say of 'im. He's lived there a matter of ten years or more-lives by 'imself with just a man and his wife to do for 'im. Far End, they calls the 'ouse."

"Far End," repeated Sara. The name conveyed an odd sense of remoteness and inaccessibility. It seemed peculiarly appropriate to a house built thus on the very edge of the mainland.

Her eyes rested musingly on the bleak promontory. It would be a fit abode, she thought, for some recluse, determined to eschew the society of his fellow-men; here he could dwell, solitary and apart, surrounded on three sides by the grey, dividing sea, and protected on the fourth by the steep untempting climb that lay betwixt the town and the lonely house on the cliff.

"'Ere you are, miss. This is Dr. Selwyn's."

The voice of her Jehu roused her from her reflections to find that the cab had stopped in front of a white-painted wooden gate bearing the legend, "Sunnyside," painted in black letters across its topmost bar.

"I'll take the keb round to the stable-yard, miss; it'll be more convenient-like for the luggage," added the man, with a mildly disapprovin

g glance towards the narrow tiled path leading from the gate to the house-door.

Sara nodded, and, having paid him his fare, made her way through the white gateway and along the path.

There seemed a curious absence of life about the place. No sound of voices broke the silence, and, although the front door stood invitingly open, there was no sign of any one hovering in the background ready to receive her.

Vaguely chilled-since, of course, they must be expecting her-she rang the bell. It clanged noisily through the house but failed to produce any more important result than the dislodging of some dust from a ledge above which the bell-wire ran. Sara watched it fall and lie on the floor in a little patch of fine, greyish powder.

The hall, of which the open door gave view, though of considerable dimensions, was poorly furnished. The wide expanse of colour-washed wall was broken only by a hat-stand, on which hung a large assortment of masculine hats and coats, all of them looking considerably the worse for wear, and by two straight-backed chairs placed with praiseworthy exactitude at equal distances apart from the aforesaid rather overburdened piece of furniture. The floor was covered with linoleum of which the black and white chess-board pattern had long since retrogressed with usage into an uninspiring blur. A couple of threadbare rugs completed a somewhat depressing "interior."

Sara rang the bell a second time, on this occasion with an irritable force that produced clangour enough, one would have thought, to awaken the dead. It served, at all events, to arouse the living, for presently heavy footsteps could be heard descending the stairs, and, finally, a middle-aged maidservant, whose cap had obviously been assumed in haste, appeared, confronting Sara with an air of suspicion that seemed rather to suggest that she might have come after the spoons.

"The doctor's out," she announced somewhat truculently. Then, before Sara had time to formulate any reply, she added, a thought more graciously: "Maybe you're a stranger to these parts. Surgery hour's not till six o'clock."

She was evidently fully prepared for Sara to accept this as a dismissal, and looked considerably astonished when the latter queried meekly:

"Then can I see Miss Selwyn, please? I understand Mrs. Selwyn is an invalid."

"You're right there. The mistress isn't up for seeing visitors. And Miss Molly, she's not home-she's away to Oldhampton."

"But-but--" stammered Sara. "They're expecting me, surely? I'm Miss Tennant," she added by way of explanation.

"Miss Tennant! Sakes alive!" The woman threw up her hands, staring at Sara with an almost comic expression, halting midway between bewilderment and horror. "If that isn't just the way of them," she went on indignantly, "never mentioning that 'twas to-day you were coming-and no sheets aired to your bed and all! The master, he never so much as named it to me, nor Miss Molly neither. But please to come in, miss-" her outraged sense of hospitality infusing a certain limited cordiality into her tones.

The woman led the way into a sitting-room that opened off the hall, standing aside for Sara to pass in, then, muttering half-inaudibly, "You'll be liking a cup of tea, I expect," she disappeared into the back regions of the house, whence a distant clattering of china shortly gave indication that the proffered refreshment was in course of preparation.

Sara seated herself in a somewhat battered armchair and proceeded to take stock of the room in which she found herself. It tallied accurately with what the hall had led her to expect. Most of the furniture had been good of its kind at one time, but it was now all reduced to a drab level of shabbiness. There were a few genuine antiques amongst it-a couple of camel-backed Chippendale chairs, a grandfather's clock, and some fine old bits of silver-which Sara's eye, accustomed to the rare and beautiful furnishings of Barrow Court, singled out at once from the olla podrida of incongruous modern stuff. These alone had survived the general condition of disrepair; but, even so, the silver had a neglected appearance and stood badly in need of cleaning.

This latter criticism might have been leveled with equal justice at almost everything in the room, and Sara, mindful of her reception, reflected that in such an oddly conducted household, where the advent of an expected, and obviously much-needed, paying guest could be completely overlooked, it was hardly probable that smaller details of house-management would receive their meed of attention.

Instead of depressing her, however, the forlorn aspect of the room assisted to raise her spirits. It looked as though there might very well be a niche in such a household that she could fill. Mentally she proceeded to make a tour of the room, duster in hand, and she had just reached the point where, in imagination, she was about to place a great bowl of flowers in the middle desert of the table, when the elderly Abigail re-appeared and dumped a tea-tray down in front of her.

Sara made a wry face over the tea. It tasted flat, and she could well imagine the long-boiling kettle from which the water with which it had been made was poured.

"I'm sure that tea's beastly!"

A masculine voice sounded abruptly from the doorway, and, looking up, Sara beheld a tall, eager-faced man, wearing a loose shabby coat and carrying in one hand a professional-looking doctor's bag. The bag, however, was the only professional-looking thing about him. For the rest, he might have been taken to be either an impoverished country squire and sportsman, or a Roman Catholic dignitary, according to whether you assessed him by his broad, well-knit figure and weather-beaten complexion, puckered with wrinkles born of jolly laughter, or by the somewhat austere and controlled set of his mouth and by the ardent luminous grey eyes, with their touch of the visionary and fanatic.

Sara set down her cup hastily.

"And I'm sure you're Dr. Selwyn," she said, a flicker of amusement at his unconventional greeting in her voice.

"Right!" he answered, shaking hands. "How are you, Miss Tennant? It was plucky of you to decide to risk us after all, and I hope-" with a slight grimace-"you won't find we are any worse than I depicted. I was very sorry I had to be out when you came," he went on genially, "but I expect Molly has looked after you all right? By the way"-glancing round him in some perplexity-"where is Molly?"

"I understood," replied Sara tranquilly, "that she had gone in to Oldhampton."

Dr. Selwyn's expression was not unlike that of a puppy caught in the unlawful possession of his master's slipper.

"What did I warn you?" he exclaimed with a rueful laugh. "We're quite a hopeless household, I'm afraid. And Molly's the most absent-minded of beings. I expect she has clean forgotten that you were coming to-day. She's by way of being an artist-art-student, rather"-correcting himself with a smile. "You know the kind of thing-black carpets and Futurist colour schemes in dress. So you must try and forgive her. She's only seventeen. But Jane-I hope Jane did the honours properly? She is our stand-by in all emergencies."

Sara's eyes danced.

"I'm afraid I came upon Jane entirely in the light of an unpleasant surprise," she responded mildly.

"What! Do you mean to say she wasn't prepared for you? Oh, but this is scandalous! What must you think of us all?" he strode across the room and pealed the bell, and, when Jane appeared in answer to the summons, demanded wrathfully why nothing was in readiness for Miss Tennant's arrival.

Jane surveyed him with the immovable calm of the old family servant, her arms akimbo.

"And how should it be?" she wanted to know. "Seeing that neither you nor Miss Molly named it to me that the young lady was coming to-day?"

"But I asked Miss Molly to make arrangements," protested Selwyn feebly.

"And did you expect her to do so, sir, may I ask?" inquired Jane with withering scorn.

"Do you mean to tell me that Miss Molly gave you no orders about preparing a room?" countered the doctor, skillfully avoiding the point raised?

"No, sir, she didn't. And if I'm kep' here talking much longer, there won't be one prepared, neither! 'Tis no use crying over spilt milk. Let me get on with the airing of my sheets, and do you talk to the young lady whiles I see to it."

And Jane departed forthwith about her business.

"Jane Crab," observed Selwyn, twinkling, "has been with us five-and-twenty years. I had better do as she tells me." He threw a doleful glance at the unappetizing tea in Sara's cup. "I positively dare not order you fresh tea-in the circumstances. Jane would probably retaliate with an ultimatum involving a rigid choice between tea and the preparation of your room, accompanied by a pithy summary of the capabilities of one pair of hands."

"Wouldn't you like some tea yourself?" hazarded Sara.

"I should-very much. But I see no prospect of getting any while Jane maintains her present attitude of mind."

"Then-if you will show me the kitchen-I'll make some," announced Sara valiantly.

Selwyn regarded her with a pitying smile.

"You don't know Jane," he said. "Trespassers in the kitchen are not-welcomed."

"And Jane doesn't know me," replied Sara firmly.

"On your own head be it, then," retorted the doctor, and led the way to the sacrosanct domain presided over by Jane Crab.

How Sara managed it Selwyn never knew, but she contrived to invade Jane's kitchen and perform the office of tea-making without offending her in the very least. Nay, more, by some occult process known only to herself, she succeeded in winning Jane's capacious heart, and from that moment onwards, the autocrat of the kitchen became her devoted satellite; and later, when Sara started to make drastic changes in the slip-shod arrangements of the house, her most willing ally.

"Miss Tennant's the only body in the place as has got some sense in her head," she was heard to observe on more than one occasion.

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