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   Chapter 27 J’ACCUSE!

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 11587

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Of course, there could be but one ending to it all. The man to whom you have promised yourself-Garth Trent-was court-martialled and cashiered."

As she finished speaking, Elisabeth's hands, which had been tightly locked together upon her knee, relaxed and fell stiffly apart, cramped with the intensity of their convulsive pressure.

Sara sat silent, staring with unseeing eyes across the familiar bay to that house on the cliff where lived the man whose past history-that history he had guarded so strenuously and completely from the ears of their little world-had just been revealed to her.

Mentally she was envisioning the whole scene of the story which hesitatingly-almost unwilling, it seemed-Elisabeth had poured out. She could see the lonely fort on the Indian Frontier, sparsely held by its indomitable little band of British soldiers, and ringed about on every side by the hill tribes who had so suddenly and unexpectedly risen in open rebellion. In imagination she could sense the hideous tension as day succeeded day and each dawning brought no sign of the longed-for relief forces. Indeed, it was not even known if the messengers sent by the officer in command had got safely through to the distant garrison to deliver his urgent message asking succour. And each evening found those who were besieged within the fort with diminished rations, and diminished hope, and with one or more dead to mark the enemy's unceasing vigilance.

And then had come the mysterious apparent withdrawal of the tribesmen. For hours no sign of the enemy had been seen, nor a single fugitive shot fired when one or other of the besieged had risked themselves at an unguarded aperture, whereas, until that morning, for a man to show himself, even for a moment, had been to court almost certain death.

Could the rebels have received word of the approach of a relieving force, whispers of a punitive expedition on its way, and so stolen stealthily, discreetly away in the silence of the night?

The hearts of the little beleaguered force rose high with hope, but again morning drew to evening without bringing sight or sound of succour. Only the enemy persisted in that strange, unbroken silence, and, at last, a hasty council of war was held within the fort, and Garth Trent, together with a handful of men, had been detailed to make a reconnaissance.

Sara could picture the little party stealing out on their dangerous errand-dangerous, indeed, if the withdrawal of the tribesmen were but a bluff, a scheme devised to lull the besieged into a false sense of security in order to attack them later at a greater disadvantage. And then-the sudden spit of a rifle, a ringing fusillade of shots in the dense darkness! The reconnaissance party had run into an ambuscade!

Sara could guess well the frayed nerves, the low vitality of men who were short of food, short of sleep, and worn with incessant watching night and day. But-Could it be possible that Englishmen had flinched at the crucial moment-lost their nerve and fled in wild disorder? Englishmen-who held the sacred trust of empire in their hands-to show the white feather to a horde of rebel natives! It was inconceivable! Sara, reared in the great tradition by that gallant gentleman, Patrick Lovell, refused to credit it.

She drew a long, shuddering breath.

"I don't believe it," she said.

Elisabeth looked at her with a pitying comprehension of the blow she had just dealt her.

"I'm afraid," she said gently, almost deprecatingly, "that there is no questioning the finding of the court-martial. Garth must have lost his head at the unexpectedness of the attack. And panic is a curious, unaccountable kind of thing, you know."

"I don't believe it," reiterated Sara stubbornly.

Elisabeth bent forward.

"My dear," she said, "there is no possibility of doubt. Garth was wounded; they brought him in afterwards-shot in the back! . . . Oh! It was all a horrible business! And the most wretched part of it all was that in reality they were only a few stray tribesmen whom our men had encountered. Perhaps Garth thought they were outnumbered-I don't know. But anyway, coming on the top of all that had gone before, the surprise attack in the darkness broke his nerve completely. He didn't even attempt to make a stand. He simply gave way. What followed was just a headlong scramble as to who could save his skin first! I shall never forget Garth's return after-after the court-martial." She shuddered a little at the memory. "I-I was engaged to him at the time, Sara, and I had no choice but to break it off. Garth was cashiered-disgraced-done for."

Sara's drooping figure suddenly straightened.

"You-you-were engaged to Garth?" she said in a queer, high voice.

"Yes"-simply. "I had promised to marry him."

Sara was silent for a long moment. Then-

"He never told me," she muttered. "He never told me."

"No? It was hardly likely he would, was it? He couldn't tell you that without telling you-the rest."

Sara made no answer. She felt stunned-beaten into helpless silence by the quiet, inexorable voice that, bit by bit, minute by minute, had drawn aside the veil of ignorance and revealed the dry bones and rottenness that lay hidden behind it.

"I don't believe it!" she had cried in a futile effort to convince herself by the sheer reiteration of denial. But she did believe it, nevertheless. The whole miserable story tallied too accurately with the bitterly significant remarks that Garth himself had let fall from time to time.

That day of the dog-fight, for instance. What was it he had said? "A certain amount of allowance must be made for nerves."

And again: "I suppose no man can be dead sure of himself-always."

The implication was too horribly clear to be evaded.

He ha

d told her, moreover, that he was a man who had made a shipwreck of his life, that in a moment of folly-a moment of funk she knew now to be the veridical description!-he had flung away the whole chances of his life. The man whom she had loved, and, in her love, idealized, had proved himself, when the test came, that most despicable of things, a coward! The pain of realization was almost unbearable.

Suddenly, across the utter desolation of the moment there shot a single ray of hope. She turned triumphantly to Elisabeth.

"But if it were true that Garth-had shown cowardice, why was he not shot? They shoot men for cowardice"-grimly.

"There are many excuses to be made for him, Sara," replied Elisabeth gently.

"Excuses! For cowardice!" The low-spoken words were icy with a biting contempt. "I'm afraid I could not find them."

"The court-martial did, nevertheless. At the trial, the 'prisoner's friend'-in this instance, Garth's colonel, who was very fond of him and had always thought very highly of him-pleaded extenuating circumstances. Garth's youth, his previous good record, the conditions of the moment-the continuous mental and physical strain of the days preceding his sudden loss of nerve-all these things were urged by the 'prisoner's friend,' and the sentence was commuted to one of cashiering."

"It would have been better if he had been shot," said Sara dully. Then suddenly she clapped both hands to her mouth. "Ah-h! What am I saying? Garth! . . . Garth! . . ."

She stumbled to her feet, her white, ravaged face turned for a moment yearningly towards Far End, where it stood bathed in the mocking morning sunlight. Then she spun half-round, groping for support, and fell in a crumpled heap on the floor.

When Sara came to herself again, she was lying on the bed in Elisabeth's room at the hotel. Some one had drawn the blinds, shutting out the crude glare of the sunlight, and in the semi-darkness she could feel soft hands about her, bathing her face with something fragrantly cool and refreshing. She opened her eyes and looked up to find Elisabeth's face bent over her-unspeakably kind and tender, like that of some Madonna brooding above her child.

"Are you feeling better?" The sweet, familiar voice roused her to the realization of what had happened. It was the same voice that, before unconsciousness had wrapped her in its merciful oblivion, had been pouring into her ears an unbelievably hideous story-a nightmare tale of what had happened at some far distant Indian outpost.

The details of the story seemed to be all jumbled confusedly together in Sara's mind, but, as gradually full consciousness returned, they began to sort themselves and fall into their rightful places, and all at once, with a swift and horrible contraction of her heart, the truth knocked at the door of memory.

She struggled up on to her elbow, her eyes frantically appealing.

"Elisabeth, was it true? Was it-all true?"

In an instant Elisabeth's hand closed round hers.

"My dear, you must try and face it. And"-her voice shook a little-"you must try and forgive me for telling you. But I couldn't let you marry Garth Trent in ignorance, could I?"

"Then it is true? Garth was court-martialled and-and cashiered?" Sara sank back against her pillows. Still, deep within her, there flickered a faint spark of hope. Against all reason, against all common sense the faith that was within her fought against accepting the bitter knowledge that Garth was guilty of what was in her eyes the one unpardonable sin.

Unpardonable! The word started a new and overwhelming train of thought. She remembered that she had told Garth she did not care what sin he had been guilty of, had forced him to believe that nothing could make any difference to her love for him, to her willingness to become his wife, and share his burden. Yet now, now that the hidden thing in his life had been revealed to her, she found herself shrinking from it in utter loathing! Her promises of faith and loyalty were already crumbling under the strain of her knowledge of the truth.

She flinched from the recognition of the fact, seeking miserably to palliate and excuse it. When she had given Garth that impetuous assurance of her confidence, she had not, in her crudest imaginings, dreamed of anything so hideous and ignoble as the actual truth had proved to be. Vaguely, she had deemed him outcast for some big, reckless sin that by the splendour of its recklessness almost earned its own forgiveness.

And instead-this! This drab-hued, pitiful weakness for which she could find no pardon in her heart.

Through the turmoil of her thoughts she became conscious that Elisabeth was stooping over her, answering her wild incredulous questioning.

"Yes, it is true," she was saying steadily. "He was court-martialled and cashiered. But, if you still doubt it, ask him yourself, Sara."

Sara's hands clenched themselves. Her eyes were feverishly brilliant in her white, shrunken face.

"Yes, I'll ask him myself." She panted a little. "You must be wrong-there must be some horrible mistake somewhere. I've been mad-mad to believe it for a single moment." She slipped from the bed to her feet, and stood confronting Elisabeth with a kind of desperate defiance. "Do you hear what I say?" she said loudly. "I don't believe it. I will never believe it till Garth himself tells me that it is true."

"Oh, my dear"-Elisabeth shrank away a little, but her eyes were kind and infinitely pitying. Sara felt frightened of the pitying kindness in those eyes-its rejection of Garth's innocence was so much stronger than any asseveration of mere words. Vaguely she heard Elisabeth's patient voice: "I think you are right. Ask him yourself-but, Sara, he will not be able to deny it."

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