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   Chapter 28 RED RUIN

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 12413

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"You sent for me, and I am here."

The brusque, curt speech sounded a knell to the faint hope which Sara had been tending whilst she waited for Garth's coming. His voice, the dogged expression of his face, the chill, brief manner, each held its grievous message for the woman who had learned to recognize the signs of mental stress in the man she loved.

"Yes, I sent for you," she said. "I-I-Garth, I have seen Elisabeth."

"Yes?" Just the one brief monosyllable in response, uttered with a slightly questioning inflection. Nothing more.

Sara twisted her hands together. There was something unapproachable about Garth as he stood there-quiet, inflexible, waiting to hear what she had to say to him.

With an effort she began again.

"She has told me of something-something that happened to you, in the past."

"Yes? Quite a great deal happened-in my past. What was it, in particular, that she told you?"

The mocking quality in his tones stung her into open accusation.

"She told me that you had been court-martialled and cashiered from the Army-for cowardice." The words came slowly, succinctly.

"Ah-h!" He drew his breath sharply, and a grey shadow seemed to spread itself over his face.

Sara waited-waited with an intensity of longing that was well-nigh unendurable-for either the indignant denial or the easy, mirthful scorn wherewith an innocent man might be expected to answer such a charge.

But there came neither of these. Only silence-an endless, agonizing silence, while Garth stood utterly motionless, looking at her, his face slowly greying.

It was impossible to interpret the expression of his eyes. There was neither anger, nor horror, nor pleading in their cool indomitable stare, but only a hard, bright impenetrability, shuttering the soul behind it from the aching gaze of the woman who waited.

In that silence, Sara's flickering hope that the accusation might prove false went out in blinding darkness. She knew, now-knew it as certainly as though Garth had answered her-that he was unable to deny it. Still, she would brace herself to hear it-to endure the ultimate anguish of words.

"Is it true?" she questioned him. "Is it true that you were-cashiered for cowardice?"

At last he spoke.

"Yes," he said. "It is true." His voice was altogether passionless, but something had come into his face, into his whole attitude, which denied the calm passivity of his reply. The soul of the man-a soul in ineffable extremity of suffering-was struggling for expression, striving against the rigid bonds of the motionless body in which his iron will constrained it.

Sara could sense it-a tormented flame shut in a casing of steel-and she was swept by a torrent of uttermost pity and compassion.

"Garth! Garth! But there must have been some explanation! . . . You weren't in your right senses at the moment. Ah! Tell me--" She broke off, her voice failing her, her arms outflung in a passion of entreaty.

As she leaned towards him, a tremor seemed to run through his entire body-the tremor of leaping muscles straining against the leash. His hands clenched slowly, the nails biting into the bruised flesh. Then he spoke, and his voice was ringing and assured-arrogantly so. The tortured soul within him had been beaten back once more into its prison-house.

"I was quite in my right senses-that night on the Frontier-never more so, believe me"-and his lips twisted in a curious, enigmatical smile. "And as far as explanations-excuses-are concerned, the court-martial made all that were possible. I-I was not shot, you see!"

There was something outrageous in the open derision of the last words. He flung them at her-as though taunting, gibing at the impulse to compassion which had swayed her, sending her tremulously towards him with imploring, outstretched hands.

"The quality of mercy was not strained in the least," he continued. "It fell around me like the proverbial gentle rain. I've quite a lot to be thankful for, don't you think?"-brutally.

"I-I don't know what to think!" she burst out. "That you-you should fall so low-so shamefully low."

"A man will do a good deal to preserve a whole skin, you know," he suggested hardily.

"Why do you speak like that?" she demanded in sharpened tones. "Do you want me to think worse of you than I do already?"

He took a step towards her and stood looking down at her with those bright, hard eyes.

"Yes, I do," he said decidedly. "I want you to think as badly of me as you possibly can. I want you to realize just what sort of a blackguard you had promised to marry, and when you've got that really clear in your mind, you'll be able to forget all about me and marry some cheerful young fool who hasn't been kicked out of the Army."

"As long as I live I shall never-be able-to forget that I loved-a coward." The words came haltingly from her lips. Then suddenly her shaking hands went up to her face, as though to shut him from her sight, and a dry, choking sob tore its way through her throat.

He made a swift stride towards her, then checked himself and stood motionless once more, in the utter quiescence of deliberately arrested movement. Only his hands, hanging stiffly at his sides, opened and shut convulsively, and his eyes should have been hidden. God never meant any man's eyes to wear that look of unspeakable torment.

When at last Sara withdrew her hands and looked at him again, his face was set like a mask, the lips drawn back a little from the teeth in a way that suggested a dumb animal in pain. But she was so hurt herself that she failed to recognize his infinitely greater hurt.

"I think-I think I hate you," she whispered.

His taut muscles seemed to relax.

"I hope you do," he said steadily. "It will be better so."

Something in the quiet acceptance of his tone moved her to a softer, more wistful emotion.

"If it had been anything-anything but that, Garth, I think I could have borne it."

There was a depth of appeal in the low-spoken words. But he ignored it, opposing a reckless indifference to her softened mood.

"Then it's just as well it wasn't 'anything but that.' Otherwise"-sardonically-"you might have felt constra

ined to abide by your rash promise to marry me."

His eyes flashed over her face, mocking, deriding. He had struck where she was most vulnerable, accusing where her innate honesty of soul admitted she had no defence, and she winced away from the speech almost as though it had been a blow upon her body.

It was true she had given her promise blindly, in ignorance of the facts, but that could not absolve her. It was not Garth who had forced the promise from her. It was she who had impetuously offered it, never conceiving such a possibility as that he might be guilty of the one sin for which, in her eyes, there could be no palliation.

"I know," she said unevenly. "I know. You have the right to remind me of my promise. I-I blame myself. It's horrible-to break one's word."

She was silent a moment, standing with bent head, her instinct to be fair, to play the game, combating the revulsion of feeling with which the knowledge of Garth's act of cowardice had filled her. When she looked up again there was a curious intensity in her expression, wanly decisive.

"Marriage for us-now-could never mean anything but misery." The effort in her voice was palpable. It was as though she were forcing herself to utter words from which her inmost being recoiled. "But I gave you my promise, and if-if you choose to hold me to it-"

"I don't choose!" He broke in harshly. "You may spare yourself any anxiety on that score. You are free-as free as though we had never met. I'm quite ready to bow to your decision that I'm not fit to marry you."

A little caught breath of unutterable relief fluttered between her lips. If he heard it, he made no sign.

"And now"-he turned as though to leave her-"I think that's all that need be said between us."

"It is not all"-in a low voice.

"What? Is there more still?" Again his voice held an insolent irony that lashed her like a whip. "Haven't you yet plumbed the full depths of my iniquity?"

"No. There is still one further thing. You said you loved me?"

"I did-I do still, if such as I may aspire to so lofty an emotion."

"It was a lie. Even"-her voice broke-"even in that you deceived me."

It seemed as though the tremulously uttered words pierced through his armour of sneering cynicism.

"No, in that, at least, I was honest with you." The bitter note of mockery that had rung through all his former speech was suddenly absent-muted, crushed out, and the quiet, steadfast utterance carried conviction even in Sara's reeling faith, shaking her to the very soul.

"But . . . Elisabeth? . . . You loved her once. And love-can't die, Garth."

"No," he said gravely. "Love can't die. But what I felt for Elisabeth was not love-not love as you and I understand it. It was the mad passion of a boy for an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She was an ideal-I invested her with all the qualities and spiritual graces that her beauty seemed to promise. But the Elisabeth I loved-didn't exist." He drew nearer her and, laying his hands on her shoulders, looked down at her with eyes that seemed to burn their way into the inmost depths of her being. "Whatever you may think of me, however low I may have fallen in your sight, believe me in this-that I have loved you and shall always love you, utterly and entirely, with my whole soul and body. It has not been an easy love-I fought against it with all my strength, knowing that it could only carry pain and suffering in its train for both of us. But it conquered me. And when you came to me that day, so courageously, holding out your hands, claiming the love that was unalterably yours-when you came to me like that, a little hurt and wounded because I had been so slow to speak my love-I yielded! Before God, Sara! I had been either more or less than a man had I resisted!"

The grip of his hands upon her shoulders tightened until it was actual pain, and she winced under it, shrinking away from him. He released her instantly, and she stood silently beside him, battling against the longing to respond to that deep, abiding love which neither now, nor ever again in life, would she be able to doubt.

That Garth loved her, wholly and completely, was an incontrovertible fact. She no longer felt the least lingering mistrust, nor even any prick of jealousy that he had once loved before. That boyish passion of the senses for Elisabeth was not comparable with this love which was the maturer growth of his manhood-a love that could only know fulfillment in the mystic union of body, soul, and spirit.

But this merely served to deepen the poignancy of the impending parting-for that she and Garth must part she recognized as inevitable.

Loving each other as men and women love but once in a lifetime, their love was destined to be for ever unconsummated. They were as irrevocably divided as though the seas of the entire world ran between them.

Wearily, in the flat, level tones of one who realizes that all hope is at an end, she stumbled through the few broken phrases which cancelled the whole happiness of life.

"It all seems so useless, doesn't it-your love and mine? . . . You've killed something that I felt for you-I don't quite know what to call it-respect, I suppose, only that sounds silly, because it was much more than that. I wish-I wish I didn't love you still. But perhaps that, too, will die in time. You see, you're not the man I thought I cared for. You're-you're something I'm ashamed to love-"

"That's enough!" he interrupted unsteadily. "Leave it at that. You won't beat it if you try till doomsday."

The pain in his voice pierced her to the heart, and she made an impulsive step towards him, shocked into quick remorse.

"Garth . . . I didn't mean it!"

"Oh yes, you meant it," he said. "Don't imagine that I'm blaming you. I'm not. You've found me out, that's all. And having discovered exactly how contemptible a person I am, you-very properly-send me away."

He turned on his heel, giving her no time to reply, and a moment later she was alone. Then came the clang of the house door as it closed behind him. To Sara, it sounded like the closing of a door between two worlds-between the glowing past and the grey and empty future.

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