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   Chapter 11 TWO ON AN ISLAND

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 26622

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Sara's conviction that Garth Trent would not be easily turned from any decision that he might take had been confirmed very emphatically over the matter of Black Brady.

Notwithstanding the fact that the man's story of his wife's illness proved to be perfectly genuine, Trent persisted that he must take his punishment, and all that Sara could do by way of mitigation was to promise Brady that she would pay the amount of any fine which might be imposed.

Brady, however, was not optimistic.

"There'll be no opshun of a fine, miss," he told her. "I've a-been up before the gen'lemen too many times"-grinning. "But if so be you'd give an eye to Bessie here, whiles I'm in quod, I'd take it very kind of you."

His forecast summed up the situation with lamentable accuracy. No option of a fine was given, and during the brief space that the prison doors closed upon him, Sara saw to the welfare of his invalid wife, thereby winning the undying devotion of Black Brady's curiously composite soul.

When he again found himself at liberty, she induced the frankly unwilling proprietor of the Cliff Hotel-the only hotel of any pretension to which Monkshaven could lay claim-to take him into his employment as an odd-job man. How she accomplished this feat it is impossible to say, but the fact remains that she did accomplish it, and perhaps Jane Crab delved to the root of the matter in the terse comment which the circumstances elicited from her: "Miss Tennant has a way with her that 'ud make they stone sphinxes gallop round the desert if so be she'd a mind they should."

Apparently, however, the sphinx of Far End was compounded of even more adamantine substance than his feminine prototype, for he exhibited a mulish aversion to budging an inch-much less galloping-in the direction Sara had indicated as desirable.

The two quarreled vehemently over the matter, and a glacial atmosphere of hostility prevailed between them during the period of Black Brady's incarceration.

Garth, undeniably the victor, was the first to open peace negotiations, and a few days subsequent to Brady's release from prison, he waylaid Sara in the town.

She was preoccupied with numerous small, unnecessary commissions to be executed for Mrs. Selwyn at half-a-dozen different shops, and she would have passed him by with a frosty little bow had he not halted in front of her and deliberately held out his hand.

"Good-morning!" he said, blithely disregarding the coolness of his reception. "Am I still in disgrace? Brady's been restored to the bosom of his family for at least five days now, you know."

Overhead, the sun was shining gloriously in an azure sky flecked with little bunchy white clouds like floating pieces of cotton-wool, while an April breeze, fragrant of budding leaf and blossom, rollicked up the street. It seemed almost as though the frolicsome atmosphere of spring had permeated even the shell of the hermit and got into his system, for there was something incorrigibly boyish and youthful about him this morning. His cheerful smile was infectious.

"Can't I be restored, too?" he asked

"Restored to what?" asked Sara, trying to resist the contagion of his good humour.

"Oh, well"-a faint shadow dimmed the sparkle in his eyes-"to the same old place I held before our squabble over Brady-just friends, Sara."

For a moment she hesitated. He had pitted his will against hers and won, hands down, and she felt distinctly resentful. But she knew that in a strange, unforeseen way their quarrel had hurt her inexplicably. She had hated meeting the cool, aloof expression of his eyes, and now, urged by some emotion of which she was, as yet, only dimly conscious, she capitulated.

"That's good," he said contentedly. "And you might just as well give in now as later," he added, smiling.

"All the same," she protested, "you're a bully."

"I know I am-I glory in it! But now, just to show that you really do mean to be friends again, will you let me row you across to Devil's Hood Island this afternoon? You told me once that you wanted to go there."

Sara considered the proposition for a moment, then nodded consent.

"Yes, I'll come," she said, "I should like to."

Devil's Hood Island was a chip off the mainland which had managed to keep its head above water when the gradually encroaching sea had stolen yet another mile from the coast. Sandy dunes, patched here and there with clumps of coarse, straggling rushes, sloped upward from the rock-strewn shore to a big crag that crowned its further side-a curious natural formation which had given the island its name.

It was shaped like a great overhanging hood, out of which, crudely suggested by the configuration of the rock, peered a diabolical face, weather-worn to the smoothness of polished marble.

April was still doing her best to please, with blue skies and soft fragrant airs, when Garth gave a final push-off to the Betsy Anne, and bent to his oars as she skimmed out over the top of the waves with her nose towards Devil's Hood Island.

Sara, comfortably ensconced amid a nest of cushions in the stern of the boat, pointed to a square-shaped basket of quite considerable dimensions, tucked away beneath one of the seats.

"What's that?" she asked curiously.

Trent's eyes followed the direction of her glance.

"That? Oh, that's our tea. You didn't imagine I was going to starve you, did you? I think we shall find that Mrs. Judson has provided all we want."

Sara laughed across at him.

"What a thoughtful man you are!" she said gaily. "Fancy a hermit remembering a woman's crucial need of tea."

"Don't credit me with too much self-effacement!" he grinned. "I enjoyed the last occasion when you were my guest, so I'm repeating the prescription."

"Still, even deducting for the selfish motive, you're progressing," she answered. "I see you developing into quite an ornament to society in course of time."

"God forbid!" he ejaculated piously.

Sara looked entertained.

"Apparently your ambitions don't lie in that direction?" she rallied him.

"There is no question of such a catastrophe occurring. I've told you that society-as such-and I have finished with each other."

His face clouded over, and for a while he sculled in silence, driving the Betsy Anne through the blue water with strong, steady strokes.

Sara was vividly conscious of the suggestion of supple strength conveyed by the rippling play of muscle beneath the white skin of his arms, bared to the elbow, and by the pliant swing of his body to each sure, rhythmical stroke.

She recollected that one of her earliest impressions concerning him had been of the sheer force of the man-the lithe, flexible strength like that of tempered steel-and she wondered whether this were entirely due to his magnificent physique or owed its impulse, in part, to some mental quality in him. Her eyes travelled reflectively to the lean, square-jawed face, with its sensitive, bitter-looking mouth and its fine modeling of brow and temple, as though seeking there the answer to her questionings, and with a sudden, intuitive instinct of reliance, she felt that behind all his cynicism and surface hardness, there lay a quiet, sure strength of soul that would not fail whoever trusted it.

Yet he always spoke as though in some way his life had been a failure-as though he had met, and been defeated, by a shrewd blow of fate.

Sara found it difficult to associate the words failure and defeat with her knowledge of his dominating personality and force of will, and the natural curiosity which had been aroused in her mind by his strange mode of life, with its deliberate isolation, and by the aroma of mystery which seemed to cling about him, deepened.

Her brows drew together in a puzzled frown, as she inwardly sought for some explanation of the many inconsistencies she had encountered even in the short time that she had known him.

His abrupt alterations from reticence to unreserved; his avowed dislike of women and the contradictory enjoyment which he seemed to find in her society; his love of music and of beautiful surroundings-alike indicative of a cultivated appreciation and experience of the good things of this world-and the solitary, hermit-like existence which he yet chose to lead-all these incongruities of temperament and habit wove themselves into an enigma which she found impossible to solve.

"Here we are!"

Garth's voice recalled her abruptly from her musings to find that the Betsy Anne was swaying gently alongside a little wooden landing-stage.

"But how civilized!" she exclaimed. "One does not expect to find a jetty on a desert-island."

Trent laughed grimly.

"Devil's Hood is far from being a desert island in the summer, when the tourists come this way. They swarm over it."

Whilst he was speaking, he had made fast the painter, and he now stepped out on to the landing-stage. Sara prepared to follow him. For a moment she stood poised with one foot on the gunwale of the boat, then, as an incoming wave drove the little skiff suddenly against the wooden supports of the jetty, she staggered, lost her balance, and toppled helplessly backward.

But even as she fell, Garth's arms closed round her like steel bars, and she felt herself lifted clean up from the rocking boat on to the landing-stage. For an instant she knew that she rested a dead weight against his breast; then he placed her very gently on her feet.

"All right?" he queried, steadying her with his hand beneath her arm. "That was a near shave."

His queer hazel eyes were curiously bright, and Sara, meeting their gaze, felt her face flame scarlet.

"Quite, thanks," she said a little breathlessly, adding: "You must be very strong."

She moved her arm as though trying to free it from his clasp, and he released it instantly. But his face was rather white as he knelt down to lift out the tea-basket, and he, too, was breathing quickly.

Somewhat silently they made their way up the sandy slope that stretched ahead of them, and presently, as they mounted the last rise, the malignant, distorted face beneath the Devil's Hood leaped into view, granite-grey and menacing against the young blue of the April sky.

"What a perfectly horrible head!" exclaimed Sara, gazing at it aghast. "It's like a nightmare of some kind."

"Yes, it's not pretty," admitted Garth. "The mouth has a sort of malevolent leer, hasn't it?"

"It has, indeed. One can hardly believe that it is just a natural formation."

"It's always a hotly debated point whether the devil and his hood are purely the work of nature or not. My own impression is that to a certain extent they are, but that someone-centuries ago-being struck by the resemblance of the rock to a human face, added a few touches to complete the picture."

"Well, whoever did it must have had a bizarre imagination to perpetuate such a thing."

"The handiwork-if handiwork it is-is attributed to Friar Anselmo-the Spanish monk who broke his vows and escaped to Monkshaven, you know."

Sara looked interested.

"No, I don't know," she said. "Tell me about him. He sounds quite exciting."

"You don't meant to say no one has enlightened you as to the gentleman whose exploit gave the town its name of Monkshaven?"

"No. I'm afraid my education as far as local history is concerned has been shamefully neglected. Do make good the deficiencies"-smiling.

Garth laughed a little.

"Very well, I will. I always have a kind of fellow-feeling for Friar Anselmo. But I propose we investigate the tea-basket first."

They established themselves beneath the shelter of a big boulder, Garth first spreading a rug which he had brought from the boat for Sara to sit on. Then he unstrapped the tea-basket, and it became evident either that Mrs. Judson had a genius for assembling together the most fascinating little cakes and savoury sandwiches, accompanied by fragrant tea, hot from a thermos flask, or else that she had acted under instructions from some one to whom the cult of afternoon tea as sublimated by Rumpelmayer was not an unknown quantity. Sara, sipping her tea luxuriously, decided in favour of the latter explanation.

"For a confirmed misogynist," she observed later on, when, the feast over, he was repacking the basket, "you have a very complete understanding of a woman's weakness for tea."

"It's a case of cause and effect. A misogynist"-caustically-"is the product of a very complete understanding of most feminine weaknesses."

Sara's slender figure tautened a little.

"Do you think," she said, speaking a little indignantly, "that it is quite nice of you to invite me out to a picnic and then to launch remarks of that description at my head?"

"No, I don't," he acknowledged bluntly. "It's making you pay some one else's bill." His lean brown hand closed suddenly over hers. "Forgive me, Sara!"

The abrupt intensity of his manner was out of all proportion to the merely surface friction of the moment; and Sara, sensing something deeper and of more significance behind it, hurriedly switched the conversation into a less personal channel.

"Very well," she said lightly, disengaging her hand. "I'll forgive you, and you shall tell me about Friar Anselmo." She lifted her eyes to the lee

ring, sinister face that protruded from the Devil's Hood. "As, presumably, from his choice of a profession, he, too, had no love for women, you ought to enjoy telling his story," she added maliciously.

Garth's eyes twinkled.

"As a matter of fact, it was love o' women that was Anselmo's undoing," he said. "In spite of his vows, he fell in love-with a very beautiful Spanish lady, and to make matters worse, if that were possible, the lady was possessed of a typically jealous Spanish husband, who, on discovering how the land lay, killed his wife, and would have killed Anselmo as well, but that he escaped to England. The vessel on which he sailed was wrecked at the foot of what has been called, ever since, the Monk's Cliff; but Anselmo himself succeeded in swimming ashore, and spent the remainder of his life at Monkshaven, doing penance for the mistakes of his earlier days."

"He chose a charming place to repent in," said Sara, her eyes wandering to the distant bay, where the quaint little town straggled picturesquely up the hill that sloped away from the coast.

"Yes," responded Garth slowly, "it's not a bad place-to repent in. . . . It would be a better place still-to love and be happy in."

There was a brooding melancholy in his tones, and Sara, hearing it, spoke very gently.

"I hope you will find it-like that," she said.

"I?" He laughed hardly. "No! Those gifts of the gods are not for such as I. The husks are my portion. If it were not so"-his voice deepened to a sudden urgent note that moved her strangely-"if it were not so-"

As though in spite of himself, his arms moved gropingly towards her. Then, with a muttered exclamation, he turned away and sprang hastily to his feet.

"Let us go back," he said abruptly, and Sara, shaken by his vehemence, rose obediently, and they began to retrace their steps.

It had grown much colder. The sun hung low in the horizon, and the deceptive warmth of mid-afternoon had given place to the chill dampness in the atmosphere. Half unconsciously, feeling that the time must have slipped away more rapidly than she had suspected, Sara quickened her steps, Garth striding silently at her side. Presently the little wooden jetty came into view once more. It bore a curiously bare, deserted aspect, the waves riding and falling sluggishly on either side of its black, tarred planking, Sara stared at it incredulously, then an exclamation of sheer dismay burst from her lips.

"The boat! Look! It's gone!"

"Gone?" Garth's eyes sought the landing-stage, then swept the vista of grey-water ahead of them.

"Damn!" he ejaculated forcibly. "She's got adrift!"

A brown speck, bobbing maddeningly up and down in the distance and momentarily drifting further and further out to sea on the ebbing tide, was all that could be seen of the Betsy Anne.

An involuntary chuckle broke from Sara.

"Marooned!" she exclaimed. "How amusing!"

"Amusing?" Trent looked at her with a concerned expression. "It might be, if it were eleven o'clock in the morning. But it's the wrong end of the day. It will be dark before long." He paused, then asked swiftly: "Does any one at Sunnyside know where you are this afternoon?"

"No. The doctor and Molly were both out to lunch-and you know we only planned this trip this morning. I haven't seen them since. Why do you ask?"

"Because, if they know, they'd send over in search of us if we didn't turn up in the course of the next hour or so. But if they don't know where you are, we stand an excellent chance of spending the night here."

The gravity of what had first struck her as merely an amusing contretemps suddenly presented itself to Sara.

"Oh!-!" She drew her breath in sharply. "What-what on earth shall we do?"

"Do?" Garth spoke with grim force. "Why, you must be got off the island somehow. If not, you're fair game for every venomous tongue in the town."

"Would any one hear us from the shore if we shouted?" she suggested.

He shook his head.

"No. The sound would carry in the opposite direction to-day."

"Then what can we do?"

By this time the manifest anxiety in Trent's face was reflected in her own. The possibility that they might be compelled to spend the night on Devil's Hood Island was not one that could be contemplated with equanimity, for Sara had no illusions whatever as to the charitableness of the view the world at large would take of such an episode-however accidental its occurrence. Unfortunately, essential innocence is frequently but a poor tool wherewith to scotch a scandal.

"There is only one thing to be done," said Garth at last, after fruitlessly scanning the waters for any stray fishing-boat that might be passing. "I must swim across, and then row back and take you off."

"Swim across?" Sara regarded the distance between the island and the shore with consternation. "You couldn't possibly do it. It's too far."

"Just under a mile."

"But you would have the tide against you," she urged. The current off the coast ran with dangerous rapidity between the mainland and the island, and more than one strong swimmer, as Sara knew, had lost his life struggling against it.

She looked across to the further shore again, and all at once it seemed impossible to let Garth make the attempt.

"No! no! You can't go!" she exclaimed.

"You wouldn't be nervous at being alone here?" he asked doubtfully.

She stamped her foot.

"No! Of course not! But-oh! Don't you see? It's madness to think of swimming across with the tide against you! You could never do it. You might get cramp-Oh! Anything might happen! You shan't go!"

She caught his arm impetuously, her eyes dilating with the sudden terror that had laid hold of her. But he was obdurate.

"Look there," he said, pointing to a faint haze thickening the atmosphere. "Do you see the mist coming up? Very soon it will be all over us, like a blanket, and there'd be no possibility of swimming across at all. I must go at once."

"But that only adds to the danger," she argued desperately. "The fog may come down sooner than you expect, and then you'd lose your bearings altogether."

"I must risk that," he answered grimly. "Don't you realize that it's impossible-impossible for us to remain here?"

"No, I don't," she returned stubbornly. "It isn't worth such a frightful risk. Some one is sure to look for us eventually."

"'Eventually' might mean to-morrow morning"-drily-"and that would be just twelve hours too late. It's worth the risk fifty times over."

"It's not!"-passionately. "Do you suppose I care two straws for the gossip of a parcel of spiteful old women?"

"Not at the moment, perhaps, but later you wouldn't be able to help it. What people think of you, what they say of you, can make all the difference between heaven and hell." He spoke heavily, as though his words were weighted with some deadening memory. "And do you think I could bear to feel that I-I had given people a handle for gossiping about you? I'd cut their tongues out first!" he added savagely.

He stripped off his coat, and, sitting down on a rock, began removing his boots, while Sara stood watching him in silence with big, sombre eyes.

Presently he stood up, bareheaded and barefooted. Below the lean, tanned face the column of his throat showed white as a woman's, while the thin silk of his vest revealed the powerful line of shoulder at its base. His keen eyes were gazing steadily across to the opposite shore, as though measuring the distance he must traverse, and as a chance shaft from the westering sun rested upon him, investing him momentarily in its radiance, there seemed something rather splendid about him-something very sure and steadfast and utterly without fear.

A sharp cry broke from Sara.

"Garth! Garth!"-his name sprang to her lips spontaneously. "You mustn't go! You mustn't go! . . ."

He wheeled round, and at the sight of her white, strained face a sudden light leapt into his eyes-the light of a great incredulity with, back of it, an unutterable hope and longing. In two strides he was at her side, his hands gripping her shoulders.

"Why, Sara?-God in heaven!"-the words came hurrying from him, hoarse and uneven-"I believe you care!"

For an instant he hesitated, seeming to hold himself in check, then he caught her in his arms, kissing her fiercely on eyes and lips and throat.

"My dear! . . . Oh! My dear! . . ."

She could hear the broken words stammered through his hurried breathing as she lay unresistingly in his arms; then she felt him put her from him, gently, decisively, and she stood alone, swaying slightly. A long shuddering sigh ran through her body.

"Garth!"

She never knew whether the word really passed her lips or whether it was only the cry of her inmost being, so importunate, so urgent that it seemed to take on actual sound.

There came no answer. He was gone, and through the light veil of the encroaching mists she could see him shearing his way through the leaden-coloured sea.

She remained motionless, her eyes straining after him. He was swimming easily, with a powerful overhand stroke that carried him swiftly away from the shore. A little sigh of relaxed tension fluttered between her lips. At least, he was a magnificent swimmer-he had that much in his favour.

Then her glance spanned the channel to the further shore, and it seemed as though an interminable waste of water stretched between. And all the time, at every stroke, that mad, racing current was pulling against him, fighting for possession of the strong, sinewy body battling against it.

She beat her hands together in an agony of fear. Why had she let him go? What did it matter if people talked-what was a tarnished reputation to set against a man's life? Oh! She had been mad to let him go!

The fog grew denser. Strain as she might, she could no longer see the dark head above the water, the rise and fall of his arm like a white flail in the murky light, and she realized that should exhaustion overtake him, or the swift-running current beat him, drawing him under-she would not even know?

A sickening sense of bitter impotence assailed her. There was nothing she could do but wait-wait helplessly until either his return, or endless hours of solitude, told her whether he had won or lost the fight against that grey, hungry waste of water. A strangled sob burst from her throat.

"Oh, God! Let him come back to me! Let him come back!"

The creak of straining rowlocks and the even plash of dripping oars, muffled by the numbing curtain of the fog, broke through the silence. Then followed the gentle thudding noise of a boat as it bumped against the jetty and a voice-Garth's voice-calling.

She rose from the ground where she had flung herself and came to him, peering at him with eyes that looked like two dark stains in the whiteness of her face.

"I though you were dead," she said dully. "Drowned. I mean-oh, of course, it's the same thing, isn't it?" And she laughed, the shrill, choking laughter of overwrought nerves.

Garth observed her narrowly.

"No, I've very much alive, thanks," he said, speaking in deliberately cheerful and commonplace accents. "But you look half frozen. Why on earth didn't you put the rug round you? Get into the boat and let me tuck you up."

She obeyed passively, and in a few minutes they were slipping over the water as rapidly as the mist permitted.

Sara was very silent throughout the return journey. For hours, for an eternity it seemed, she had been in the grip of a consuming terror, culminating at last in the conviction that Garth had failed to make the further shore. And now, with the knowledge of his safety, the reaction from the tension of acute anxiety left her utterly flaccid and exhausted, incapable of anything more than a half-stunned acceptance of the miracle.

When at last the Selwyns' house was reached, it was with a manifest effort that she roused herself sufficiently to answer Garth's quiet apology for the misadventure of the afternoon.

"If it was your fault that we got stranded on the island," she said, summoning up rather a wan smile, "it is, at all events, thanks to you that I shall be sleeping under a respectable roof, instead of scandalizing half the neighbourhood!" She paused, then went on uncertainly: "'Thank you' seems ludicrously inadequate for all you've done-"

"I've done nothing," he interrupted brusquely.

"You risked your life-"

An impatient exclamation broke from him.

"And if I did? I risked something of no value, I assure you-to myself, or any one else."

Then he added practically-

"Get Jane Crab to give you some hot soup and go to bed. You look absolutely done."

Sara nodded, smiling more naturally.

"I will," she said. "Good-night, then." She held out her hand a little nervously.

He took it, holding it closely in his, and looking down at her with the strange expression of a man who strives to impress upon his mind the picture of a face he may not see again, so that in a lonely future he shall find comfort in remembering.

"Good-bye!" he said, at last, very gravely. Then a queer little smile, half-bitter, half-tender, curving his lips, he added: "I shall always have this one day for which to thank whatever gods there be."

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