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   Chapter 21 THE PITILESS ALTAR

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 8100

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Elisabeth was pacing restlessly up and down the broad, flagged terrace at Barrow, impatiently awaiting Tim's return from Monkshaven.

She knew his errand there. He had scarcely needed to tell her the contents of Sara's letter, so swiftly had she summed up the immediate connection between the glimpse she had caught of Sara's handwriting and the shadow on the beloved face.

She moved eagerly to meet him as she heard the soft purr of the motor coming up the drive.

"Well?" she queried, slipping her arm through his and drawing him towards the terrace.

Tim looked at her with troubled eyes. He could guess so exactly what her attitude would be, and he was not going to allow even Elisabeth to say unkind things about the woman he loved. If he could prevent it, she should not think them.

Very gently, and with infinite tact, he told her the result of his interview with Sara, concealing so far as might be his own incalculable hurt.

To his relief, his mother accepted the facts with unexpected tolerance. He could not see her expression, since her eyes veiled themselves with down-dropped lids, but she spoke quite quietly and as though trying to be fair in her judgment. There was no outward sign by which her son might guess the seething torrent of anger and resentment which had been aroused within her.

"But if, as you tell me, Sara doesn't expect to marry this man she cares for, surely she had been unduly hasty? If he can never be anything to her, need she set aside all thought of matrimony?"

Tim stared at his mother in some surprise. There was a superficial worldly wisdom in the speech which he would not have anticipated.

"It seems to me rather absurd," she continued placidly. "Quixotic-the sort of romantic 'live and die unwed' idea that is quite exploded. Girls nowadays don't wither on their virgin stems if the man they want doesn't happen to be in a position to marry them. They marry some one else."

Tim felt almost shocked. From his childhood he had invested his mother with a kind of rarefied grace of mental and moral qualities commensurate with her physical beauty, and her enunciation of the cynical creed of modern times staggered him. It never occurred to him that Elisabeth was probing round in order to extract a clear idea of Sara's attitude in the whole matter, and he forthwith proceeded innocently to give her precisely the information she was seeking.

"Sara isn't like that, mother," he said rather shortly. "It's just the-the crystal purity of her outlook which makes her what she is-so absolutely straight and fearless. She sees love, and holds by what she believes its demands to be. I wouldn't wish her any different," he added loyally.

"Perhaps not. But if-supposing the man proves to have a wife already? He might be separated from her; Sara doesn't seem to know much about him. Or he may have a wife in a lunatic asylum who is likely to live for the next forty years. What then? Will Sara never marry if-if there were a circumstance like that-a really insurmountable obstacle?"

"No, I don't believe she will. I don't think she would wish to. If he loves her and she him, spiritually they would be bound to one another-lovers. And just the circumstance of his being tied to another woman would make no difference to Sara's point of view. She goes beyond material things-or the mere physical side of love."

"Then there is no chance for you unless Sara learns to unlove this man?"

Tim regarded her with faint amusement.

"Mother, do you think you could learn to unlove me-or my father?"

She laughed a little.

"You have me there, Tim," she acknowledged. "But"-hesitating a little-"Sara knows so little of the man, apparently, that she may have formed a mistaken estimate of his character. Perhaps he is not really the-the ideal individual she has pictured him."

Tim smiled.

"You are a very transparent person, mother mine," he said indulgently. "But I'm afraid your hopes of finding that the idol has feet of clay are predestined to disappointment."

"Hav

e you met the man?" asked Elisabeth sharply.

"I do not even know his name. But I should imagine him a man of big, fine qualities."

"Since you don't know him, you can hardly pronounce an opinion."

A whimsical smile, touched with sadness, flitted across Tim's face.

"I know Sara," was all he said.

"Sara is given to idealizing the people she cares for," rejoined Elisabeth.

She spoke quietly, but her expression was curiously intent. It was as though she were gathering together her forces, concentrating them towards some definite purpose, veiled in the inscrutable depths of those strange eyes of hers.

"I find it difficult to forgive her," she said at last.

"That's not like you, mother."

"It is-just like me," she responded, a tone of half-tender mockery in her voice. "Naturally I find it difficult to forgive the woman who has hurt my son."

Tim answered her out of the fullness of the queer new wisdom with which love had endowed him.

"A man would rather be hurt by the woman he loves than humoured by the woman he doesn't love," he said quietly.

And Elisabeth, understanding, held her peace.

She had been very controlled, very wise and circumspect in her dealing with Tim, conscious of raw-edged nerves that would bear but the lightest of handling. But it was another woman altogether who, half-an-hour later, faced Geoffrey Durward in the seclusion of his study.

The two moving factors in Elisabeth's life had been, primarily, her love for her husband, and, later on, her love for Tim, and into this later love was woven all the passionately protective instinct of the maternal element. She was the type of woman who would have plucked the feathers from an archangel's wing if she thought they would contribute to her son's happiness; and now, realizing that the latter was threatened by the fact that his love for Sara had failed to elicit a responsive fire, she felt bitterly resentful and indignant.

"I tell you, Geoffrey," she declared in low, forceful tones, "she shall marry Tim-she shall! I will not have his beautiful young life marred and spoilt by the caprices of any woman."

Major Durward looked disturbed.

"My dear, I shouldn't call Sara in the least a capricious woman. She knows her own heart-"

"So does Tim!" broke in Elisabeth. "And, if I can compass it, he shall have his heart's desire."

Her husband shook his head.

"You cannot force the issue, my dear."

"Can I not? There's little a woman cannot do for husband or child! I tell you, Geoffrey-for you, or for Tim, to give you pleasure, to buy you happiness, I would sacrifice anybody in the world!"

She stood in front of him, her beautiful eyes glowing, and her voice was all shaken and a-thrill with the tumult of emotion that had gripped her. There was something about her which suggested a tigress on the defensive-at bay, shielding her young.

Durward looked at her with kind, adoring eyes.

"That's beautiful of you, darling," he replied gently. "But it's a dangerous doctrine. And I know that, really, you're far too tender-hearted to sacrifice a fly."

Elisabeth regarded him oddly.

"You don't know me, Geoffrey," she said very slowly. "No man knows a woman, really-not all her thoughts." And had Major Durward, honest fellow, realized the volcanic force of passion hidden behind the tense inscrutability of his wife's lovely face, he would have been utterly confounded. We do not plumb the deepest depths even of those who are closest to us.

Civilisation had indeed forced the turgid river to run within the narrow channels hewn by established custom, but, released from the bondage of convention, the soul of Elisabeth Durward was that of sheer primitive woman, and the pivot of all her actions her love for her mate and for the man-child she had borne him.

Once, years ago, she had sacrificed justice, and honour, and a man's faith in womanhood on that same pitiless altar of love. But the story of that sacrifice was known only to herself and one other-and that other was not Durward.

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