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The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 16116

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The Durwards received the news of their son's engagement to Sara with unfeigned delight. Geoffrey was bluffly gratified at the materialization of his private hopes, and Elisabeth had never appeared more captivating than during the few days that immediately followed. She went about as softly radiant and content as a pleased child, and even the strange, watchful reticence that dwelt habitually in her eyes was temporarily submerged by the shining happiness that welled up within them.

She urged that an early date should be fixed for the wedding, and Sara, with a dreary feeling that nothing really mattered very much, listlessly acquiesced. Driven by conflicting influences she had burned her boats, and the sooner all signs of the conflagration were obliterated the better.

But she opposed a quiet negative to the further suggestion that she should accompany the Durwards to Barrow Court instead of returning to Monkshaven.

"No, I can't do that," she said with decision. "I promised Doctor Dick I would go back."

Elisabeth smiled airily. Apparently she had no scruples about the keeping of promises.

"That's easily arranged," she affirmed. "I'll write to your precious doctor man and tell him that we can't spare you."

As far as personal inclination was concerned, Sara would gladly have adopted Elisabeth's suggestion. She shrank inexpressibly from returning to Monkshaven, shrouded, as it was, in brief but poignant memories, but she had given Selwyn her word that she would go back, and, even in a comparatively unimportant matter such as this appeared, she had a predilection in favour of abiding by a promise.

Elisabeth demurred.

"You're putting Dr. Selwyn before us," she declared, candidly amazed.

"I promised him first," replied Sara. "In my position, you'd do the same."

Elisabeth shook her head.

"I shouldn't," she replied with energy. "The people I love come first-all the rest nowhere."

"Then I'm glad I'm one of the people you love," retorted Sara, laughing. "And, let me tell you, I think you're a most unmoral person."

Elisabeth looked at her reflectively.

"Perhaps I am," she acknowledged. "At least, from a conventional point of view. Certainly I shouldn't let any so-called moral scruples spoil the happiness of any one I cared about. However, I suppose you would, and so we're all to be offered up on the altar of this twopenny-halfpenny promise you've made to Dr. Selwyn?"

Sara laughed and kissed her.

"I'm afraid you are," she said.

If anything could have reconciled her to the sacrifice of inclination she had made in returning to Monkshaven, it would have been the warmth of the welcome extended to her on her arrival. Selwyn and Molly met her at the station, and Jane Crab, resplendent in a new cap and apron donned for the occasion, was at the gate when at last the pony brought the governess-cart to a standstill outside. Even Mrs. Selwyn had exerted herself to come downstairs, and was waiting in the hall to greet the wanderer back.

"It will be a great comfort to have you back, my dear," she said with unwonted feeling in her voice, and quite suddenly Sara felt abundantly rewarded for the many weary hours upstairs, trying to win Mrs. Selwyn's interest to anything exterior to herself.

"You're looking thinner," was Selwyn's blunt comment, as Sara threw off her hat and coat. "What have you been doing with yourself?"

She flushed a little.

"Oh, racketing about, I suppose. I've been living in a perfect whirl. Never mind, Doctor Dick, you shall fatten me up now with your good country food and your good country air. Good gracious!"-as he closed a big thumb and finger around her slender wrist and shook his head disparagingly-"Don't look so solemn! I was always one of the lean kine, you know."

"I don't think that London has agreed with you," rumbled Selwyn discontentedly. "Your pulse is as jerky as a primitive cinema film. You'd better not be in such a hurry to run away from us again. Besides, we can't do without you, my dear."

With a mental jolt Sara recollected the fact of her approaching marriage. How on earth should she break it to these good friends of hers, who counted so much on her remaining with them, that within three months-the longest period Elisabeth would consent to wait-she would be leaving them permanently? It was manifestly impossible to pour such a douche of cold water into the midst of the joyful warmth of their welcome; and she decided to wait, at least until the next day, before acquainting them with the fact of her engagement.

When morning came, the same arguments held good in favour of a further postponement, and, as the days slipped by, it became increasingly difficult to introduce the subject.

Moreover, amid the change of environment and influence, Sara experienced a certain almost inevitable reaction of feeling. It was not that she actually regretted her engagement, but none the less she found herself supersensitively conscious of it, and she chafed against the thought of the congratulations and all the kindly, well-meant "fussation" which its announcement would entail.

She told herself irritably that this was only because she had not yet had time to get used to the idea of regarding herself as Tim's future wife; that, later on, when she had grown more accustomed to it, the prospect of her friends' felicitations would appear less repugnant. She had to face the ultimate fact that marriage, for her, did not mean the crowning fulfillment of life; marriage with Tim would never be anything more than a substitute, a next best thing.

With these thoughts in her mind, she finally decided to say nothing about her engagement for the present, but to pick up the threads of life at Sunnyside as though that crowded month in London, with its unexpected culmination, had never been.

Once taken, the decision afforded her a curious sense of respite and relief. It was very pleasant to drop back into the old habits of managing the Sunnyside ménage-making herself indispensable to Selwyn, humouring his wife, and keeping a watchful eye on Molly.

The latter, Sara found, was by far the most difficult part of her task, and the vague apprehensions she had formed, and to some extent shared with Selwyn before her visit to London, increased.

From an essentially lovable, inconsequent creature, with a temper of an angel and the frankness of a child, Molly had become oddly nervous and irritable, flushing and paling suddenly for no apparent cause, and guardedly uncommunicative as to her comings and goings. She was oddly resentful of any manifestation of interest in her affairs, and snubbed Sara roundly when the latter ventured an injudicious inquiry as to whether Lester Kent were still in the neighbourhood.

"How on earth should I know?" The golden-brown eyes met Sara's with a look of nervous defiance. "I'm not his keeper." Then, as though slightly ashamed of her outburst, she added more amiably: "I haven't been down to the Club for weeks. It's been so hot-and I suppose I've been lazy. But I'm going to-morrow. I shall be able to gratify your curiosity concerning Lester Kent when I come home."

"To-morrow?" Sara looks surprised. "But we promised to go to tea with Audrey to-morrow."

Molly flushed and looked away.

"Did we?" she said vaguely. "I'd forgotten."

"Can't you arrange to go to Oldhampton the next day instead?" continued Sara.

Molly frowned a little. At last-

"I tell you what I'll do," she said agreeably. "I'll come back by the afternoon train and meet you at Greenacres." And with this concession Sara had to be content.

Tea at Greenacres resolved itself into a kind of rarefied picnic, and, as Sara crossed the cool green lawns in the wake of a smart parlourmaid, she found that quite a considerable number of Audrey's friends-and enemies-were gathered together under the shade of the trees, partaking of tea and strawberries and cream. The elite of the neighbourhood might find many disagreeable things to say concerning Mrs. Maynard, but t

hey were not in the least averse to accepting her hospitality whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Sara's heart leapt suddenly as she descried Trent's lean, well-knit figure amongst those dotted about on the lawn. She had tried very hard to accustom herself to meet him with composure, but at each encounter, although outwardly quite cool, her pulses raced, and to-day, the first time she had seen him since her return from London, she felt as though all her nerves were outside her skin instead of underneath it.

He was talking to Miles Herrick. The latter, lying back luxuriously in a deck-chair, proceeded to wave and beckon an enthusiastic greeting as soon as he caught sight of Sara, and rather reluctantly she responded to his signals and made her way towards the two men.

"I feel like a bloated sultan summoning one of the ladies of the harem to his presence," confessed Miles apologetically when he had shaken hands. "I've added a sprained ankle to my other disabilities," he continued cheerfully. "Hence my apparent laziness."

Sara commiserated appropriately.

"How did you manage to get here?" she asked.

Miles gestured towards Trent.

"This man maintained that it was bad for my mental and moral health to brood alone at home while Lavinia went skipping off into society unchaperoned. So he fetched me along in his car."

Sara's eyes rested thoughtfully on Trent's face a moment.

It was odd how kindly and considerate he always showed himself towards Miles Herrick. Perhaps somewhere within him a responsive chord was touched by the evidence of the other man's broken life.

"Miss Tennant is thinking that it's a case of the blind leading the blind for me to act as a cicerone into society," remarked Trent curtly.

Sara winced at the repellent hardness of his tone, but she declined to take up the challenge.

"I am very glad you persuaded Miles to come over," was all she said.

Trent's lips closed in a straight line. It seemed as though he were trying to resist the appeal of her gently given answer; and Miles, conscious of the antagonism in the atmosphere, interposed with some commonplace question concerning her visit to London.

"You're looking thinner than you were, Sara," he added critically.

She flushed a little as she felt Trent's hawk-like glance sweep over her.

"Oh, I've been leading too gay a life," she said hastily. "The Durwards seem to know half London, so that we crowded about a dozen engagements into each day-and a few more into the night."

"Durward?" The word sprang violently from Trent's lips, almost as though jerked out of him, and Sara, glancing towards him in some astonishment, surprised a strange, suddenly vigilant expression in his face. It was immediately succeeded by a blank look of indifference, yet beneath the assumption of indifference his eyes seemed to burn with a kind of slumbering hostility.

"Yes-the people I have been staying with," she explained. "Do you know them, by any chance?"

"I really can't say," he replied carelessly. "Durward is not a very uncommon name, is it?"

"Their name was originally Lovell-they only acquired the Durward with some property. Mrs. Durward is an extraordinarily beautiful woman. I believe in her younger days she had half London in love with her."

Sara hardly knew why she felt impelled to supply so many particulars concerning the Durwards. After that first brief exclamation, Trent seemed to have lost interest, and appeared to be rather bored by the recital than otherwise. He made no comment when she had finished.

"Then you don't know them?" she asked at last.

"I?" He started slightly, as though recalled to the present by her question. "No. I haven't the pleasure to be numbered amongst Mrs. Durward's friends," he said quietly. "I have seen her, however."

"She is very beautiful, don't you think?" persisted Sara.

"Very," he replied indifferently. And then, quite deliberately, he directed the conversation into another channel, leaving Sara feeling exactly as though a door had been slammed in her face.

It was his old method of putting an end to a discussion that failed to please him-this arrogantly abrupt transition to another subject-and, though it served its immediate purpose, it was a method that had its weaknesses. If you deliberately hide behind a hedge, any one who catches you in the act naturally wonders why you are doing it.

Even Miles looked a trifle astonished at Trent's curt dismissal of the Durward topic, and Sara, who had observed the strange expression that leaped into his eyes-half-guarded, half inimical-felt convinced that he knew more about the Durwards than he had chosen to acknowledge.

She could not imagine in what way they were connected with his life, nor why he should have been so averse to admitting his knowledge of them. But there were many inexplicable circumstances associated with the man who had chosen to live more or less the life of a recluse at Far End; and Sara, and the little circle of intimates who had at last succeeded in drawing him into their midst, had accustomed themselves to the atmosphere of secrecy that seemed to envelope him.

From his obvious desire to eschew the society of his fellow men and women, and from the acid cynicism of his outlook on things in general, it had been gradually assumed amongst them that some happenings in the past had marred his life, poisoning the springs of faith, and hope, and charity at their very fount, and with the tact of real friendship they never sought to discover what he so evidently wished concealed.

"Where is Molly to-day?" Miles's pleasant voice broke across the awkward moment, giving yet a fresh trend to the conversation that was languishing uncomfortably.

Sara's gaze ranged searchingly over the little groups of people sprinkled about the lawn.

"Isn't she here yet?" she asked, startled. "She was coming back from Oldhampton by the afternoon train, and promised to meet me here."

Miles looked at his watch.

"The attractions of Oldhampton have evidently proved too strong for her," he said a little drily. "If she had come by the afternoon train, she would have been here an hour ago."

Sara looked troubled.

"Oh, but she must be here-somewhere," she insisted rather anxiously.

"Shall I see if I can find her for you?" suggested Trent stiffly.

Sara, sensing his wish to be gone and genuinely disturbed at Molly's non-appearance, acquiesced.

"I should be very glad if you would," she answered. Then turning to Miles, she went on: "I can't think where she can be. Somehow, Molly has become rather-difficult, lately."

Herrick smiled.

"Don't look so distressed. It is only a little ebullition of la jeunesse."

Sara turned to him swiftly.

"Then you've noticed it, too-that she is different?"

He nodded.

"Lookers-on see most of the game, you know. And I'm essentially a looker-on." He bit back a quick sigh, and went on hastily: "But I don't think you need worry about our Molly's vagaries. She's too sound au fond to get into real mischief."

"She wouldn't mean to," conceded Sara. "But she is--" She hesitated.

"Youthfully irresponsible," suggested Miles. "Let it go at that."

Sara looked at him affectionately, reflecting that Trent's black cynicism made a striking foil to the serene and constant charity of Herrick's outlook.

"You always look for the best in people, Miles," she said appreciatively.

"I have to. Don't you see, people are my whole world. I'm cut off from everything else. If I didn't look for the best in them, I should want to kill myself. And I'm pretty lucky," he added, smiling humorously. "I generally find what I'm looking for."

At this moment Trent returned with the news that Molly was nowhere to be found. It was evident she had not come to Greenacres at all.

Sara rose, feeling oddly apprehensive.

"Then I think I shall go home and see if she has arrived there yet," she said. She smiled down at Miles. "Even irresponsibility needs checking-if carried too far."

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