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   Chapter 8 THE UNWILLING HOST

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 18263

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


It was one of those surprisingly warm days, holding a foretaste of June's smiles, which March occasionally vouchsafes.

The sun blazed down out of a windless, cloudless sky, and Sara, making her way leisurely through the straggling woods that intervened betwixt the Selwyns' house and Monk's Cliff, felt the salt-laden air wafted against her face, as warmly mellow as though summer were already come.

Molly had gone to Oldhampton-since the artists' colony there would be certain to take advantage of this gift of a summer's day to arrange a sketching party, and, as the morning's post had brought Sara a letter from Elisabeth Durward which had occasioned her considerable turmoil of spirit, she had followed her natural bent by seeking the solitude of a lonely tramp in order to think the matter out.

From her earliest days at Barrow she had always carried the small tangles of childhood to a remote corner of the pine-woods for solution, and the habit had grown with her growth, so that now, when a rather bigger tangle presented itself, she turned instinctively to the solitude of the cliffs at Monkshaven, where the murmur of the sea was borne in her ears, plaintively reminiscent of the sound of the wind in her beloved pine trees.

Spring comes early in the sheltered, southern bay of Monkshaven, and already the bracken was sending up pushful little shoots of young green, curled like a baby's fist, while the primroses, bunched together in clusters, thrust peering faces impertinently above the green carpet of the woods. Sara stopped to pick a handful, tucking them into her belt. Then, emerging from the woods, she breasted the steep incline that led to the brow of the cliff.

A big boulder, half overgrown with moss and lichen, offered a tempting resting-place, and flinging herself down on the yielding turf beside it, she leaned back and drew out Elisabeth's letter.

She had sometimes wondered whether Elisabeth had any suspicion of the fact that, before leaving Barrow, she had refused to marry Tim. The friendship and understanding between mother and son was so deep that it was very possible that Tim had taken her into his confidence. And even if he had not, the eyesight of love is extraordinarily keen, and Elisabeth would almost inevitably have divined that something was amiss with his happiness.

If this were so, as Sara admitted to herself with a wry smile, there was little doubt that she would look askance at the woman who had had the temerity to refuse her beautiful Tim!

And now, although her letter contained no definite allusion to the matter, reading between the lines, the conviction was borne in upon Sara that Elisabeth knew all that there was to know, and had ranged herself, heart and soul, on the side of her son.

It was obvious that she thought of the whole world in terms of Tim, and, had she been a different type of woman, the simile of a hen with one chick would have occurred to Sara's mind.

But there was nothing in the least hen-like about Elisabeth Durward. Only, whenever Tim came near her, her face, with its strangely inscrutable eyes, would irradiate with a sudden warmth and tenderness of emotion that was akin to the exquisite rapture of a lover when the beloved is near. To Sara, there seemed something a little frightening-almost terrible-in her intense devotion to Tim.

The letter itself was charmingly written-expressing the hope that Sara was happy and comfortable at Monkshaven, recalling their pleasant time at Barrow together, and looking forward to other future visits from her-"which would be a fulfillment of happiness to us all."

It was this last sentence, combined with one or two other phrases into which much or little meaning might equally as easily be read, which had aroused in Sara a certain uneasy instinct of apprehension. Dimly she sensed a vague influence at work to strengthen the ties that bound her to Barrow, and to all that Barrow signified.

She faced the question with characteristic frankness. Tim had his own place in her heart-secure and unassailable. But it was not the place in that sacred inner temple which is reserved for the one man, and she recognized this with a limpid clearness of perception rather uncommon in a girl of twenty. She also recognized that it was within the bounds of possibility that the one man might never come to claim that place, and that, if she gave Tim the answer he so ardently desired, they would quite probably rub along together as well as most married folk-better, perhaps, than a good many. But she was very sure that she never intended to desecrate that inner temple by any lesser substitute for love.

Thus she reasoned, with the untried confidence of youth, which is so pathetically certain of itself and of its ultimate power to hold to its ideals, ignorant of the overpowering influences which may develop to push a man or woman this way or that, or of the pain that may turn clear, definite thought into a welter of blind anguish, when the soul in its agony snatches at any anodyne, true or false, which may seem to promise relief.

A little irritably she folded up Elisabeth's letter. It was disquieting in some ways-she could not quite explain why-and just now she felt averse to wrestling with disturbing ideas. She only wanted to lie still, basking in the tranquil peace of the afternoon, and listen to the murmuring voice of the sea.

She closed her eyes indolently, and presently, lulled by the drowsy rhythm of the waves breaking at the foot of the cliff, she fell asleep.

She woke with a start. An ominous drop of rain had splashed down on to her cheek, and she sat up, broad awake in an instant and shivering a little. It had turned much colder, and a wind had risen which whispered round her of coming storm, while the blue sky of an hour ago was hidden by heavy, platinum-coloured clouds massing up from the south.

Another and another raindrop fell, and, obeying their warning, Sara sprang up and bent her steps in the direction of home. But she was too late to avoid the storm which had been brewing, and before she had gone a hundred yards it had begun to break in drifting scurries of rain, driven before the wind.

She hurried on, hoping to gain the shelter of the woods before the threatened deluge, but within ten minutes of the first heralding drops it was upon her-a torrent of blinding rain, sweeping across the upland like a wet sheet.

She looked about her desperately, in search of cover, and perceiving, on the further side of a low stone wall, what she took to be a wooden shelter for cattle, she quickened her steps to a run, and, nimbly vaulting the wall, fled headlong into it.

It was not, however, the cattle shed she had supposed it, but a roughly constructed summer-house, open on one side to the four winds of heaven and with a wooden seat running round the remaining three.

Sara guessed immediately that she must have trespassed again on the Far End property, but reflecting that neither its owner nor his lynx-eyed servant was likely to be abroad in such a downpour as this, and that, even if they were, and chanced to discover her, they could hardly object to her taking refuge in this outlying shelter, she shook the rain from her skirts and sat down to await the lifting of the storm.

As always in such circumstances, the time seemed to pass inordinately slowly, but in reality she had not been there more than a quarter of an hour before she observed the figure of a man emerge from some trees, a few hundred yards distant, and come towards her, and despite the fact that he was wearing a raincoat, with the collar turned up to his ears, and a tweed cap pulled well down over his head, she had no difficulty in recognizing in the approaching figure her fellow-traveller of the journey to Monkshaven.

Evidently he had not seen her, for she could hear him whistling softly to himself as he approached, while with the fingers of one hand he drummed on his chest as though beating out the rhythm of the melody he was whistling-a wild, passionate refrain from Wieniawski's exquisite Legende. It sounded curiously in harmony with the tempest that raged about him.

For himself, he appeared to regard the storm with indifference-almost to welcome it, for more than once Sara saw him raise his head as though he were glad to feel the wind and rain beating against his face.

She drew back a little into the shadows of the summer-house, hoping he might turn aside without observing her, since, from all accounts, Garth Trent was hardly the type of man to welcome a trespasser upon his property.

But he came straight on towards her, and an instant later she knew that her presence was discovered, for he stopped abruptly and peered through the driving rain in the direction of the summer-house. Then, quickening his steps, he rapidly covered the intervening space and halted on the threshold of the shelter.

"What the devil--" he began, then paused and stared down at her with an odd glint of amusement in his eyes. "So it's you, is it?" he said at last, with a short laugh.

Once again Sara was cons

cious of the extraordinary intensity of his regard, and now, as a sudden ragged gleam of sunlight pierced the clouds, falling athwart his face, she realized what it was that induced it. In both eyes the clear hazel of the iris was broken by a tiny, irregularly shaped patch of vivid blue, close to the pupil, and its effect was to give that curious depth and intentness of expression which Molly had tried to describe when she had said that Garth Trent's were the kind of eyes which "make you jump if he looked at you suddenly."

Sara almost jumped now; then, supported by her indignant recollection of the man's churlishness on a former occasion, she bowed silently.

He continued to regard her with that lurking suggestion of amusement at the back of his eyes, and she was annoyed to feel herself flushing uncomfortably beneath his scrutiny. At last he spoke again.

"You seem to have a faculty for intrusion," he remarked drily.

Sara's eyes flashed.

"And you, a fancy for solitude," she retorted.

"Exactly." He bowed ironically. "Perhaps you would oblige me by considering it?" And he drew politely aside as though to let her pass out in front of him.

Sara cast a dismayed glance at the rain, which was still descending in torrents. Then she turned to him indignantly.

"Do you mean that you're going to insist on my starting out in this storm?" she demanded.

"Don't you know that you've no right to be here at all-that you're trespassing?" he parried coolly.

"Of course I know it! But I didn't expect that any one in the world would object to my trespassing in the circumstances!"

"You must not judge me by other people," he replied composedly. "I am not-like them."

"You're not, indeed," agreed Sara warmly.

"And your tone implies 'thanks be,'" he supplemented with a faint smile. "Oh, well," he went on ungraciously, "stay if you like-so long as you don't expect me to stay with you."

Sara hastily disclaimed any such desire, and, lifting his cap, he turned and strode away into the rain.

Another ten minutes crawled by, and still the rain came down as persistently as though it intended never to cease again. Sara fidgeted, and walked across impatiently to the open front of the summer-house, staring up moodily at the heavy clouds. They showed no signs of breaking, and she was just about to resume her weary waiting on the seat within the shelter, when quick steps sounded to her left, and Garth Trent reappeared, carrying an umbrella and with a man's overcoat thrown over his arm.

"It's going to rain for a good two hours yet," he said abruptly. "You'd better come up to the house."

Sara gazed at him in silent amazement; the invitation was so totally unexpected that for the moment she had no answer ready.

"Unless," he added sneeringly, misinterpreting her silence, "you're afraid of the proprieties?"

"I'm far more afraid of taking cold," she replied promptly, preparing to evacuate the summer-house.

"Here, put this on," he said gruffly, holding out the coat he had brought with him. "There's no object in getting any wetter than you must."

He helped her into the coat, buttoning it carefully under her chin, his dexterous movements and quiet solicitude contrasting curiously with the detachment of his manner whilst performing these small services. He was so altogether business-like and unconcerned that Sara felt not unlike a child being dressed by a conscientious but entirely disinterested nurse. When he had fastened the last button of the long coat, which came down to her heels, he unfurled the umbrella and held it over her.

"Keep close to me, please," he said briefly, nor did he volunteer any further remark until they had accomplished the journey to the house, and were standing together in the old-fashioned hall which evidently served him as a living room.

Here Trent relieved her of the coat, and while she stood warming her feet at the huge log-fire, blazing half-way up the chimney, he rang for his servant and issued orders for tea to be brought, as composedly as though visitors of the feminine persuasion were a matter of everyday occurrence.

Sara, catching a glimpse of Judson's almost petrified face of astonishment as he retreated to carry out his master's instructions, and with a vivid recollection of her last encounter with him, almost laughed out loud.

"Please sit down," said Trent. "And"-with a glance towards her feet-"you had better take off those wet shoes."

There was something in his curt manner of giving orders-rather as though he were a drill-sergeant, Sara reflected-that aroused her to opposition. She held out her feet towards the blaze of the fire.

"No, thank you," she replied airily. "They'll dry like this."

As she spoke, she glanced up and encountered a sudden flash in his eyes like the keen flicker of a sword-blade. Without vouchsafing any answer, he knelt down beside her and began to unlace her shoes, finally drawing them off and laying them sole upwards, in front of the fire to dry. Then he passed his hand lightly over her stockinged feet.

"Wringing wet!" he remarked curtly. "Those silk absurdities must come off as well."

Sara sprang up.

"No!" she said firmly. "They shall not!"

He looked at her, again with that glint of mocking amusement with which he had first greeted her presence in his summer-house.

"You'd rather have a bad cold?" he suggested.

"Ever so much rather!" retorted Sara hardily.

He gave a short laugh, almost as though he could not help himself, and, with a shrug of his shoulders, turned and marched out of the room.

Left alone, Sara glanced about her in some surprise at the evidences of a cultivated taste and love of beauty which the room supplied. It was not quite the sort of abode she would have associated with the grim, misanthropic type of man she judged her host to be.

The old-fashioned note, struck by the huge oaken beams supporting the ceiling and by the open hearth, had been retained throughout, and every detail-the blue willow-pattern china on the old oak dresser, the dimly lustrous pewter perched upon the chimney-piece, the silver candle-sconces thrusting out curved, gleaming arms from the paneled walls-was exquisite of its kind. It reminded her of the old hall at Barrow, where she and Patrick had been wont to sit and yarn together on winter evenings.

The place had a well-tended air, too, and Sara, who waged daily war against the slovenly shabbiness prevalent at Sunnyside, was all at once sensible of how desperately she had missed the quiet perfection of the service at Barrow. The nostalgia for her old home-the unquenchable, homesick longing for the place that has held one's happiness-rushed over her in a overwhelming flood.

Wishing she had never come to this house, which had so stirred old memories, she got up restlessly, driven by a sudden impulse to escape, just as the door opened to re-admit Garth Trent.

He gave her a swift, searching glance.

"Sit down again," he commanded. "There"-gravely depositing a towel and a pair of men's woolen socks on the floor beside her-"dry your feet and put those socks on."

He moved quickly away towards the window and remained there, with his back turned studiously towards her, while she obeyed his instructions. When she had hung two very damp black silk stockings on the fire-dogs to dry, she flung a somewhat irritated glance at him over her shoulder.

"You can come back," she said in a small voice.

He came, and stood staring down at the two woolly socks protruding from beneath the short, tweed skirt. The suspicion of a smile curved his lips.

"They're several sizes too large," he observed. "Odd creatures you women are," he went on suddenly, after a brief silence. "You shy wildly at the idea of letting a man see the foot God gave you, but you've no scruples at all about letting any one see the selfishness that the devil's put into your hearts."

He spoke with a kind of savage contempt; it was as though the speech were tinged with some bitter personal memory.

Sara's eyes surveyed him calmly.

"I've no intention of making an exhibit of my heart," she observed mildly.

"It's wiser not, probably," he retorted disagreeably, and at that moment Judson came into the room and began to arrange the tea-table beside his master's chair.

"Put it over there," directed Trent sharply, indicating with a gesture that the table should be placed near his guest, and Judson, his face manifesting rather more surprise than is compatible with the wooden mask demanded of the well-trained servant, hastened to comply.

When he had readjusted the position of the tea-table, he moved quietly about the room, drawing the curtains and lighting the candles in their silver sconces, so that little pools of yellow light splashed down on to the smooth surface of the oak floor-waxed and polished till it gleamed like black ivory.

As he withdrew unobtrusively towards the door, Trent tossed him a further order.

"I shall want the car round in a couple of hours-at six," he said, and smiled straight into Sara's startled eyes.

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