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   Chapter 25 THE CUT DIRECT

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 12683

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

It was a merry party which had gathered together in the shady heart of Haven Woods. The Selwyns, Sara and Elisabeth, Miles Herrick and the Lavender Lady were all there, and, in addition, there was a large and light-hearted contingent from Greenacres, where Audrey was entertaining a houseful of friends. Only Garth had not yet arrived.

Two young subalterns on leave and a couple of pretty American sisters, all of them staying at Greenacres, were making things hum, nobly seconded in their efforts by Miles Herrick, who had practically recovered from his sprained ankle and one of whose "good days" it chanced to be.

Every one seemed bubbling over with good-humour and high spirits, so that the dell re-echoed to the shouts of jolly laughter, while the birds, flitting nervously hither and thither, wondered what manner of creatures these were who had invaded their quiet sanctuary of the woods. And presently, when the whole party gathered round the white cloth, spread with every dainty that the inspired mind of Audrey's chef had been able to devise, and the popping corks began to punctuate the babble of chattering voices, they took wing and fled incontinently. They had heard similar sharp, explosive sounds before, and had noted them as being generally the harbingers of sudden death.

"Where's that wretched hermit of yours, Sara?" demanded Audrey gaily. "I told him we should lunch at one, and it's already a quarter-past. Ah!"-catching sight of a lean, supple figure advancing between the trees-"Here he is at last!"

A shout greeted Garth's approach, and the uproarious quartette composed of the two subalterns and the girls from New York City pounded joyously with their forks upon their plates, creating a perfect pandemonium of noise, Miles recklessly participating in the clamorous welcome, while the Lavender Lady fluttered her handkerchief, and Sara and Audrey both hurried forward to meet the late comer. In the general excitement nobody chanced to observe the effect which Trent's appearance had had upon one of the party.

Elisabeth had half-risen from the grassy bank on which she had been sitting, and her face was suddenly milk-white. Even her lips had lost their soft rose-colour, and were parted as if an exclamation of some kind had been only checked from passing them by sheer force of will.

Out of her white face, her eyes, seeming so dark that they were almost violet, stared fixedly at Garth as he approached. Their expression was as masked, as enigmatical as ever, yet back of it there gleamed an odd light, and it was as though some curious menace lay hidden in its quiet, slumbrous fire.

The little group composed of Audrey, Sara, and Garth had joined the main party now, and Garth was shaking eager, outstretched hands and laughingly tossing back the shower of chaff which greeted his tardy arrival.

Then Sara, laying her hand on his arm, steered him towards Elisabeth. Some one who had been standing a little in front of the latter, screening her from Trent's view, moved aside as they approached.

"Garth, let me introduce you to Mrs. Durward."

The smile that would naturally have accompanied the words was arrested ere it dawned, and involuntarily Sara drew back before the instant, startling change in Garth's face. It had grown suddenly ashen, and his eyes were like those of a man who, walking in some pleasant place, finds all at once, that a bottomless abyss has opened at his feet.

For a full moment he and Elisabeth stared at each other in a silence so vital, so pregnant with some terrible significance, that it impacted upon the whole prevailing atmosphere of care-free jollity.

A sudden muteness descended on the party, the laughing voices trailing off into affrighted silence, and in the dumb stillness that followed Sara was vibrantly conscious of the hostile clash of wills between the man and woman who had, in a single instant, become the central figures of the little group.

Then Elisabeth's voice-that amazingly sweet voice of hers-broke the profound quiet.

"Mr.-Trent"-she hesitated delicately before the name-"and I have met before."

And quite deliberately, with a proud, inflexible dignity, she turned her back upon him and moved away.

Sara never forgot the few moments that followed. She felt as though she were on the brink of some crisis in her life which had been slowly drawing nearer and nearer to her and was now acutely imminent, and instinctively she sought to gather all her energies together to meet it. What it might be she could not guess, but she was sure that this declared enmity between the man she loved and the woman who was her friend preluded some menace to her happiness.

Her eyes sought Garth's in horror-stricken interrogation.

"What is it? What does she mean?" she demanded swiftly, in a breathless undertone, instinctively drawing aside from the rest of the party.

He laughed shortly.

"She means mischief, probably," he replied. "Mrs. Durward is no friend of mine."

Sara's eyes blazed.

"She shall explain," she exclaimed impetuously, and she swung aside, meaning to follow Elisabeth and demand an explanation of the insult. But Garth checked her.

"No," he said decidedly. "Please do nothing-say nothing. For Audrey's sake we can't have a scene-here."

"But it's unpardonable--"

"Do as I say," he insisted. "Believe me, you will only make things worse if you interfere. I will make my apologies to Audrey and go. For my sake, Sara"-he looked at her intently-"go back and face it out. Behave as if nothing had happened."

Compelled, in spite of herself, by his insistence, Sara reluctantly assented and, leaving him, made her way slowly back to the others.

A disjointed buzz of talk sprayed up against her ears. Every one rushed into conversation, making valiant, if quite fruitless efforts to behave as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, while, a little apart from the main group, Elisabeth stood alone.

Meanwhile Trent sought out his hostess, and together they moved away, pausing at last beneath the canopy of trees.

"No words can quite meet what has just occurred," he said formally. "I can only express my regret that my presence here should have occasioned such a contretemps."

Although the whole brief scene had been utterly incomprehensible to her, Audrey

intuitively sensed the bitter hurt underlying the harshly spoken words, and the outraged hostess was instantly submerged in the friend.

"I am so sorry about it, Garth," she said gently, "although, of course, I don't understand Mrs. Durward's behaviour."

"That is very kind of you!" he replied, his voice softening. "But please do not visit your very natural indignation upon Mrs. Durward. I alone am to blame, I ought never to have renounced my role of hermit. Unfortunately"-with a brief smile of such sadness that Audrey felt her heart go out to him in a sudden rush of sympathy-"my mere presence is an abuse of my friends' hospitality."

"No, no!" she exclaimed quickly. "We are all glad to have you with us-we were so pleased when-when at last you came out of your shell, Garth"-with a faint smile.

"Still the fact remains that I am outside the social pale. I had no business to thrust myself in amongst you. However-after this-you may rest assured that I shan't offend again."

"I decline to rest assured of anything of the kind," asserted Audrey with determination. "Don't be such a fool, Garth-or so unfair to your friends. Just because you chance to have met a women who, for some reason, chooses to cut you, doesn't alter our friendship for you in the very least. What Mrs. Durward may have against you I don't know-and I don't care either. I have nothing against you, and I don't propose to give any pal of mine the go-by because some one else happens to have quarreled with him."

Trent's eyes were curiously soft as he answered her.

"Thank you for that," he said earnestly. "All the same, I think you will have to make up your mind to allow your-friend, as you are good enough to call me, to go to the wall. You, and others like you, dragged him out, but, believe me, his place is not in the centre of the room. There are others besides Mrs. Durward who would give you the reason why, if you care to know it."

"I don't care to know it," responded Audrey firmly. "In fact, I should decline to recognize any reason against my calling you friend. I don't intend to let you go, nor will Miles, you'll find."

"Ah! Herrick! He's a good chap, isn't he?" said Trent a little wistfully.

"We all are-once you get to know us," returned Audrey, persistently cheerful. "And Sara-Sara won't let you go either, Garth."

His sensitive, bitter mouth twisted suddenly.

"If you don't mind," he said quickly, "we won't talk about Sara. And I won't keep you any longer from your guests. It was-just like you-to take it as you have done, Audrey. And if, later on, you find yourself obliged to revise your opinion of me-I shall understand. And I shall not resent it."

"I'm not very likely to do what you suggest."

He looked at her with a curious expression on his face.

"I'm afraid it is only too probable," he rejoined simply.

He wrung her hand, and, turning, walked swiftly away through the wood, while Audrey retraced her footsteps in the direction of the dell.

She was feeling extremely annoyed at what she considered to be Mrs. Durward's hasty and inconsiderate action. It was unpardonable of any one thus to spoil the harmony of the day, she reflected indignantly, and then she looked up and met Elisabeth's misty, hyacinth eyes, full of a gentle, appealing regret.

"Mrs. Maynard, I must beg you to try and pardon me," she said, approaching with a charming gesture of apology. "I have no excuse to offer except that Mr. Trent is a man I-I cannot possibly meet." She paused and seemed to swallow with some difficulty, and of a sudden Audrey was conscious of a thrill of totally unexpected compassion. There was so evidently genuine pain and emotion behind the hesitating apology.

"I am sorry you should have been distressed," she replied kindly. "It has been a most unfortunate affair all round."

Elisabeth bestowed a grateful little smile upon her.

"If you will forgive me," she said, "I will say good-bye now. I am sure you will understand my withdrawing."

"Oh no, you mustn't think of such a thing," cried Audrey hospitably, though within herself she could not but acknowledge that the suggestion was a timely one. "Please don't run away from us like that."

"It is very kind of you, but really-if you will excuse me-I think I would prefer not to remain. I feel somewhat bouleversee. And I am so distressed to have been the unwitting cause of spoiling your charming party."

Audrey hesitated.

"Of course, if you would really rather go--" she began.

"I would rather," persisted Elisabeth with a gentle inflexibility of purpose. "Will you give a message to Sara for me?" Audrey nodded. "Ask her to come and see me to-morrow, and tell her that-that I will explain." Suddenly she stretched out an impulsive hand. "Oh, Mrs. Maynard! If you knew how much I dread explaining this matter to Sara! Perhaps, however"-her eyes took on a thoughtful expression-"Perhaps, however, it may not be necessary-perhaps it can be avoided."

A sense of foreboding seemed to close round Audrey's heart, as she met the gaze of the beautiful, enigmatic eyes. What was it that Elisabeth intended to "explain" to Sara? Something connected with Garth Trent, of course, and it was impossible, in view of the attitude Elisabeth had assumed, to hope that it could be aught else than something to his detriment.

"If an explanation can be avoided, Mrs. Durward," she said rather coldly, "I think it would be much better. The least said, the soonest mended, you know," she added, looking straight into the baffling eyes.

The two women, all at once antagonistic and suspicious of each other, shook hands formally, and Elisabeth took her way through the woods, while Audrey rejoined her neglected guests and used her best endeavours to convert an entertainment that threatened to become a failure into, at least, a qualified success. By dint of infinite tact, and the loyal cooperation of Miles Herrick, she somehow achieved it, and the majority of the picnickers enjoyed themselves immensely.

Only Sara felt as though a shadow had crept out from some hidden place and cast its grey length across the path whereon she walked, while Miles and Audrey, discerning the shadow with the clear-sighted vision of friendship, were filled with apprehension for the woman whom they had both learned to love.

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