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   Chapter 6 THE SKELETON IN SELWYN’S CUPBOARD

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 14860

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


After tea, Selwyn escorted Sara upstairs and introduced her to his wife. Mrs. Selwyn was a slender, colourless woman, possessing the remnants of what must at one time have been an ineffective kind of prettiness. She was a determinedly chronic invalid, and rarely left the rooms which had been set aside for her use to join the other members of the family downstairs.

"The stairs try my heart, you see," she told Sara, with the martyred air peculiar to the hypochondriac-the genuine sufferer rarely has it. "It is, of course, a great deprivation to me, and I don't think either Dick"-with an inimical glance at her husband-"or Molly come up to see me as often as they might. Stairs are no difficulty to them."

Selwyn, who invariably ran up to see his wife immediately on his return from no matter how long or how tiring a round of professional visits, bit his lip.

"I come as often as I can, Minnie," he said patiently. "You must remember my time is not my own."

"No, dear, of course not. And I expect that outside patients are much more interesting to visit than one's own wife," with a disagreeable little laugh.

"They mean bread-and-butter, anyway," said Selwyn bluntly.

"Of course they do." She turned to Sara. "Dick always thinks in terms of bread-and-butter, Miss Tennant," she said sneeringly. "But money means little enough to any one with my poor health. Beyond procuring me a few alleviations, there is nothing it can do for me."

Sara was privately of the opinion that it had done a good deal for her. Looking round the luxuriously furnished room with its blazing fire, and then at Mrs. Selwyn herself, elegantly clad in a rest-gown of rich silk, she could better understand the poverty-stricken appearance of the rest of the house, Dick's shabby clothes, and his willingness to receive a paying guest whose contribution towards the housekeeping might augment his slender income.

Here, then, was where his hard-earned guineas went-to keep in luxury this petulant, complaining woman whose entire thoughts were centred about her own bodily comfort, and whom Patrick Lovell, with his lucid recognition of values, would have contemptuously described as "a parasite woman, m'dear-the kind of female I've no use for."

"Oh, Dick"-Mrs. Selwyn had been turning over the pages of a price-list that was lying on her knee-"I see the World's Store have just brought out a new kind of adjustable reading-table. It's a much lighter make than the one I have. I think I should find it easier to use."

Selwyn's face clouded.

"How much does it cost, dear?" he asked nervously. "These mechanical contrivances are very expensive, you know."

"Oh, this one isn't. It's only five guineas."

"Five guineas is rather a lot of money, Minnie," he said gravely. "Couldn't you manage with the table you have for a bit longer?"

Mrs. Selwyn tossed the price-list pettishly on to the floor.

"Of, of course!" she declared. "That's always the way. 'Can't I manage with what I have? Can't I make do with this, that, and the other?' I believe you grudge every penny you spend on me!" she wound up acrimoniously.

A dull red crept into Selwyn's face.

"You know it's not that, Minnie," he replied in a painfully controlled voice. "It's simply that I can't afford these things. I give you everything I can. If I were only a rich man, you should have everything you want."

"Perhaps if you were to work a little more intelligently you'd make more money," she retorted. "If only you'd keep your brains for the use of people who can pay-and pay well-I shouldn't be deprived of every little comfort I ask for! Instead of that, you've got half the poor of Monkshaven on your hands-and if you think they can't afford to pay, you simply don't send in a bill. Oh, I know!"-sitting up excitedly in her chair, a patch of angry scarlet staining each cheek-"I hear what goes on-even shut away from the world as I am. It's just to curry popularity-you get all the praise, and I suffer for it! I have to go without what I want-"

"Oh, hush! Hush!" Selwyn tried ineffectually to stem the torrent of complaint.

"No, I won't hush! It's 'Doctor Dick this,' and 'Doctor Dick that'-oh, yes, you see, I know their name for you, these slum patients of yours!-but it's Doctor Dick's wife who really foots the bills-by going without what she needs!"

"Minnie, be quiet!" Selwyn broke in sternly. "Remember Miss Tennant is present."

But she had got beyond the stage when the presence of a third person, even that of an absolute stranger, could be depended upon to exercise any restraining effect.

"Well, since Miss Tenant's going to live here, the sooner she knows how things stand the better! She won't be here long without seeing how I'm treated"-her voice rising hysterically-"set on one side, and denied even the few small pleasures my health permits--"

She broke off in a storm of angry weeping, and Sara retreated hastily from the room, leaving husband and wife alone together.

She had barely regained the shabby sitting-room when the front door opened and closed with a bang, and a gay voice could be heard calling-

"Jane! Jane! Come here, my pretty Jane! I've brought home some shrimps for tea!"

"Hold your noise, Miss Molly, now do!"

Sara could hear Jane's admonitory whisper, and there followed a murmured colloquy, punctuated by exclamations and gusts of young laughter, calling forth renewed remonstrance from Jane, and then the door of the room was flung open, and Molly Selwyn sailed in and overwhelmed Sara with apologies for her reception, or rather, for the lack of it. She was quite charming in her penitence, waving dimpled, deprecating hands, and appealing to Sara with a pair of liquid, disarming, golden-brown eyes that earned her forgiveness on the spot.

She was a statuesque young creature, compact of large, soft, gracious curves and swaying movements-with her nimbus of pale golden hair, and curiously floating, undulating walk, rather reminding one of a stray goddess. Always untidy with hooks lacking at important junctures, and the trimmings of her hats usually pinned on with a casualness that occasionally resulted in their deserting the hat altogether, she could still never be other than delightful and irresistibly desirable to look upon.

Her red, curving mouth of a child, cleft chin, and dimpled, tapering hands all promised a certain yieldingness of disposition-a tendency to take always the line of least resistance-but it was a charming, appealing kind of frailty which most people-the sterner sex, certainly-would be very ready to condone.

It is a wonderful thing to be young. Molly poured herself out a cup of hideously stewed tea and drank it joyously to an accompaniment of shrimps and bread-and-butter, and when Sara uttered a mild protest, she only laughed and declared that it was a wholesome and digestible diet compared with some of the "studio teas" perpetrated by the artists' colony at Oldhampton, of which she was a member.

She chattered away gaily to Sara, giving her vivacious thumb-nail portraits of her future neighbours-the people Selwyn had described as being "much nicer than ourselves."

"The Herricks and Audrey Maynard are our most intimate friends-I'm sure you'll adore them. Mrs. Maynard is a widow, and if she weren't so frightfully rich, Monkshaven would be perennially shocked at her. She is ultra-fashionable, and smokes when

ever she chooses, and swears when ordinary language fails her-all of which things, of course, are anathema to the select circles of Monkshaven. But then she's a millionaire's widow, so instead of giving her the cold shoulder, every one gushes round her and declares 'Mrs. Maynard is such a thoroughly modern type, you know!'"-Molly mimicked the sugar-and-vinegar accents of the critics to perfection-"and privately Audrey shouts with laughter at them, while publicly she continues to shock them for the sheer joy of the thing."

"And who are the Herricks?" asked Sara, smiling. "Married people?"

"No." Molly shook her head. "Miles is a bachelor who lives with a maiden aunt-Miss Lavinia. Or, rather, she lives with him and housekeeps for him. 'The Lavender Lady,' I always call her, because she's one of those delightful old-fashioned people who remind one of dimity curtains, and pot-pourri, and little muslin bags of lavender. Miles is a perfect pet, but he's lame, poor dear."

Sara waited with a curious eagerness for any description which might seem to fit her recent fellow-traveller, but none came, and at last she threw out a question in the hope of eliciting his name.

"He was horribly ungracious and rude," she added, "and yet he didn't look in the least the sort of man who would be like that. There was no lack of breeding about him. He was just deliberately snubby-as though I had no right to exist on the same planet with him-anyway"-laughing-"not in the same railway compartment."

Molly nodded sagely.

"I believe I know whom you mean. Was he a lean, brown, grim-looking individual, with the kind of eyes that almost make you jump when they look at you suddenly?"

"That certainly describes them," admitted Sara, smiling faintly.

"Then it was the Hermit of Far End," announced Molly.

"The Hermit of Far End?"

"Yes. He's a queer, silent man who lives all by himself at a house built almost on the edge of Monk's Cliff-you must have seen it as you drove up?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Sara, with sudden enlightenment. "Then his name is Trent. The cabman presented me with that information," she added, in answer to Molly's look of surprise.

"Yes-Garth Trent. It's rather an odd name-sounds like a railway collision, doesn't it? But it suits him somehow"-reflectively.

"Have you met him?" prompted Sara. It was odd how definite an interest her brief encounter with him had aroused in her.

"Yes-once. He treated me"-giggling delightedly-"rather as if I wasn't there! At least"-reminiscently-"he tried to."

"It doesn't sound as though he had succeeded?" suggested Sara, amused.

Molly looked at her solemnly.

"He told some one afterwards-Miles Herrick, the only man he ever speaks to, I think, without compulsion-that I was 'the Delilah type of woman, and ought to have been strangled at birth.'"

"He must be a charming person," commented Sara ironically.

"Oh, he's a woman-hater-in fact, I believe he has a grudge against the world in general, but woman in particular. I expect"-shrewdly-"he's been crossed in love."

At this moment Selwyn re-entered the room, his grave face clearing a little as he caught sight of his daughter.

"Hullo, Molly mine! Got back, then?" he said, smiling. "Have you made your peace with Miss Tennant, you scatterbrained young woman?"

"It's a hereditary taint, Dad-don't blame me!" retorted Molly with lazy impudence, pulling his head down and kissing him on the top of his ruffled hair.

Selwyn grinned.

"I pass," he submitted. "And who is it that's been crossed in love?"

"The Hermit of Far End."

"Oh"-turning to Sara-"so you have been discussing our local enigma?"

"Yes. I fancy I must have travelled down with him from Oldhampton. He seemed rather a boorish individual."

"He would be. He doesn't like women."

"Monk's Cliff would appear to be an appropriate habitation for him, then," commented Sara tartly.

They all laughed, and presently Selwyn suggested that his daughter should run up and see her mother.

"She'll be hurt if you don't go up, kiddy," he said. "And try and be very nice to her-she's a little tired and upset to-day."

When she had left the room he turned to Sara, a curious blending of proud reluctance and regret in his eyes.

"I'm so sorry, Miss Tennant," he said simply, "that you should have seen our worst side so soon after your arrival. You-you must try and pardon it-"

"Oh, please, please don't apologize," broke in Sara hastily. "I'm so sorry I happened to be there just then. It was horrible for you."

He smiled at her wistfully.

"It's very kind of you to take it like that," he said. "After all"-frankly-"you could not have remained with us very long without finding out our particular skeleton in the cupboard. My wife's state of health-or, rather, what she believes to be her state of health-is a great grief to me. I've tried in every way to convince her that she is not really so delicate as she imagines, but I've failed utterly."

Now that the ice was broken, he seemed to find relief in pouring out the pitiful little tragedy of his home life.

"She is comparatively young, you know, Miss Tennant-only thirty-seven, and she willfully leads the life of a confirmed invalid. It has grown upon her gradually, this absorption in her health, and now, practically speaking, Molly has no mother and I no wife."

"Oh, Doctor Dick"-the little nickname, that had its origin in his slum patients' simple affection for the man who tended them, came instinctively from her lips. It seemed, somehow, to fit itself to the big, kindly man with the sternly rugged face and eyes of a saint. "Oh, Doctor Dick, I'm so sorry-so very sorry!"

Perhaps something in the dainty, well-groomed air of the woman beside him helped to accentuate the neglected appearance of the room, for he looked round in an irritated kind of way, as though all at once conscious of its deficiencies.

"And this-this, too," he muttered. "There's no one at the helm. . . . The truth is, I ought never to have let you come here."

Sara shook her head.

"I've very glad I came," she said simply. "I think I'm going to be very happy here."

"You've got grit," he replied quietly. "You'd make a success of your life anywhere. I wish"-thoughtfully-"Molly had a little of that same quality. Sometimes"-a worried frown gathered on his face-"I get afraid for Molly. She's such a child . . . and no mother to hold the reins."

"Doctor Dick, would you consider it impertinent if-if I laid my hands on the reins-just now and then?"

He whirled round, his eyes shining with gratitude.

"Impertinent! I should be illimitably thankful! You can see how things are-I am compelled to be out all my time, my wife hardly ever leaves her own rooms, and Molly and the house affairs just get along as best they can."

"Then," said Sara, smiling, "I shall put my finger in the pie. I've-I've no one to look after now, since Uncle Patrick died," she added. "I think, Doctor Dick, I've found my job."

"It's absurd!" he exclaimed, regarding her with unfeigned delight. "Here you come along, prepared, no doubt, to be treated as a 'guest,' and the first thing I do is to shovel half my troubles on to your shoulders. It's absurd-disgraceful! . . . But it's amazingly good!" He held out his hand, and as Sara's slim fingers slid into his big palm, he muttered a trifle huskily: "God bless you for it, my dear!"

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