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   Chapter 29 DIVERS OPINIONS

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 19970

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The consternation created at Sunnyside by the breaking off of Sara's engagement had spent itself at last. Selwyn had said but little, only his saint's eyes held the wondering, hurt look that the inexplicable sins of humanity always had the power to bring into them. Characteristically, he hated the sin but overflowed in sympathy for the sinner.

"Poor devil!" he said, when the whole story of Trent's transgression and its consequences had been revealed to him. "What a ghastly stone to hang round a man's neck for the term of his natural life! If they'd shot him, it would have been more merciful! That would at least have limited the suffering," he went on, taking Sara's hand and holding it in his strong, kindly one a moment. "Poor little comrade! Oh, my dear"-as she shrank instinctively-"I'm not going to talk about it-I know you'd rather not. Condolence platitudes were never in my line. But my pal's troubles are mine-just as she once made mine hers."

Jane Crab's opinions were enunciated without fear or favour, and, in defiance of public opinion, she took her stand on the side of the sinner and maintained it unwaveringly.

"Well, Miss Sara," she affirmed, "unless you've proof as strong as 'Oly Writ, as they say, I'd believe naught against Mr. Trent. Bluff and 'ard he may be in 'is manner, but after the way he conducted himself the night Miss Molly ran away, I'll never think no ill of 'im, not if it was ever so!"

Sara smiled drearily.

"I wish I could feel as you do, Jane dear. But-Mrs. Durward knows."

"Mrs. Durward! Huh! One of them tigris women I calls 'er," retorted Jane, who had formed her opinion with lightning rapidity when Elisabeth made a farewell visit to Sunnyside before leaving Monkshaven. "Not but what you can't help liking her, neither," went on Jane judicially. "There's something good in the woman, for all she looks at you like a cat who thinks you're after stealing her kittens. But there! As the doctor-bless the man!-always says, there's good in everybody if so be you'll look for it. Only I'd as lief think that Mrs. Durward was somehow scared-like-too almighty scared to be her natchral self, savin' now and again when she forgets."

To Mrs. Selwyn, the breaking off of Sara's engagement, and the manner of it, signified very little. She watched the panorama of other people's lives unfold with considerably less sympathetic concern than that with which one follows the ups and downs that befall the characters in a cinema drama, since they were altogether outside the radius of that central topic of unfailing interest-herself.

The only way in which recent events impinged upon her life was in so far as the rupture of Sara's engagement would probably mean the indefinite prolongation of her stay at Sunnyside, which would otherwise have ended with her marriage. And this, from Mrs. Selwyn's egotistical point of view, was all to the good, since Sara had acquired a pleasant habit of making herself both useful and entertaining to the invalid.

Molly's emotions carried her to the other extreme of the compass. Since the night when she had realized that she had narrowly missed making entire shipwreck of her life, thanks to the evil genius of Lester Kent, her character seemed to have undergone a change-to have deepened and expanded. She was no longer so buoyantly superficial in her envisagement of life, and the big things reacted on her in a way which would previously have been impossible. Formerly, their significance would have passed her by, and she would have floated airily along, unconscious of their piercing reality.

Side by side with this increase of vision, there had developed a very deep and sincere affection for both Garth and Sara based, probably, in its inception, on her realization that whatever of good, whatever of happiness, life might hold for her, she would owe it fundamentally to the two who had so determinedly kept her heedless feet from straying into that desert from which there is no returning to the pleasant paths of righteousness. A censorious world sees carefully to that, for ever barring out the sinner-of the weaker sex-from inheriting the earth.

So that to this new and awakened Molly the abrupt termination of Sara's engagement came as something almost too overwhelming to be borne. She did not see how Sara could bear it, and to her youthful mind, mercifully unwitting that grief is one of the world's commonplaces, Sara was henceforth haloed with sorrow, set specially apart by the tragic circumstances which had enveloped her. Unconsciously she lowered her voice when speaking to her, infusing a certain specific sympathy into every small action she performed for her, shrank from troubling her in any way, and altogether, in her youth and inexperience, behaved rather as though she were in a house of mourning, where the candles yet burned in the chamber of death and the blinds shut out the light of day.

At last Sara rebelled, although compassionately aware of Molly's excellent intentions.

"Molly, my angel, if you persist in treating me as though I had just lost the whole of my relatives in an earthquake or a wreck at sea, I shall explode. I've had a bad knock, but I don't want it continually rubbing into me. The world will go on-even although my engagement is broken off. And I'm going on."

It was bravely spoken, and though Sara was inwardly conscious that in the last words the spirit, for the moment, outdistanced the flesh, it served to dissipate the rather strained atmosphere which had prevailed at Sunnyside since the rupture of her engagement had become common knowledge.

So, figuratively speaking, the blinds were drawn up and life resumed its normal aspect once again.

It had fallen to the lot of Audrey Maynard to carry the ill-tidings to Rose Cottage. Sara had asked her to acquaint their little circle with the altered condition of affairs, and Audrey had readily undertaken to perform this service, eager to do anything that might spare Sara some of the inevitable pinpricks which attend even the big tragedies of life.

"The whole affair is incomprehensible to me," said Audrey at last, as she rose preparatory to taking her departure. There seemed no object in lingering to discuss so painful a topic. "It's-oh! It's heart-breaking."

Miss Livinia departed hastily to do a little weep in the seclusion of her room upstairs. She hardly concerned herself with the enormity of Garth's offence. She was old, and she saw only romance shattered into fragments, youth despoiled of its heritage, love crucified. Moreover, the Lavender Lady had never been censorious.

"What is your opinion, Miles?" asked Audrey, when she had left the room.

Herrick had been rather silent, his brown eyes meditative. Now he looked up quickly.

"About the funking part of it? As I wasn't on the spot when the affair took place, I haven't the least right to venture an opinion."

Audrey looked puzzled.

"I don't see why not. You can't get behind the verdict of the court-martial."

"Trials have been known where justice went awry," said Miles quietly. "There was a trial where Pilate was judge."

"Do you mean to say you doubt the verdict?"-eagerly.

"No, I was not meaning quite that in this case. But, because the law says a man is a blackguard, when I'd stake my life he's nothing of the kind, it doesn't alter my opinion one hair's-breadth. The verdict may have been-probably, almost certainly, was-the only verdict that could be given to meet the facts of the case. But still, it is possible that it was not a just verdict-labelling as a coward for all time a man who may have had one bad moment when his nerves played him false. There are other men who have had their moment of funk, but, as the matter never came under the official eyes, they have made good since-ended up as V.C.'s, some of 'em. Facts are often very foolish things, to my mind. Motives, and circumstances, even conditions of physical health, are bound to play as big a part as facts, if you're going to administer pure justice. But the army can't consider the super-administration of justice"-smiling. "Discipline must be maintained and examples made. Only-sometimes-it's damn bad luck on the example."

It was an unusually long speech for Miles to have been guilty of, and Audrey stood looking at him in some surprise.

"Miles, you're rather a dear, you know. I believe you're almost as strongly on Garth's side as Jane Crab."

"Is Jane?" And Herrick smiled. "She's a good old sport then. Anyhow, I don't propose to add my quota to the bill Trent's got to pay, poor devil!"

Audrey's face softened as she turned to go.

"One can't help feeling pitifully sorry for him," she admitted. "To have had Sara-and then to have lost her!"

There was a whimsical light in Herrick's eyes as he answered her.

"But, at least," he said, "he has had her, if only for a few days."

Audrey paused with her hand upon the latch of the door.

"I imagine Garth-asked for what he wanted!" she observed, and vanished precipitately through the doorway.

"Audrey!" Miles started up, but, by the time he reached the house door, she was already disappearing through the gateway into the road and beyond pursuit.

"She must have run!" he commented ruefully to himself as he returned to the sitting-room.

This discovery seemed to afford him food for reflection. For a long time he sat very quietly in his chair, apparently arguing out with himself some knotty point.

Nor had his thoughts, at the moment, any connection with the recent discussion of Garth Trent's affairs. It was only after the Lavender Lady had returned, a little pink about the eyelids, that the recollection of the original object of Mrs. Maynard's visit recurred to him.

Simultaneously, his brows drew together in a sudden concentration of thought, and an inarticulate exclamation escaped him.

Miss Livinia looked up from the delicate piece of cobwebby lace she was finishing

.

"What did you say, dear?" she asked absently.

"I didn't say anything," he smiled back at her. "I was thinking rather hard, that's all, and just remembered something I had forgotten."

The Lavender Lady looked a trifle mystified.

"I don't think I quite understand, Miles dear."

Herrick, on his way to the door, stooped to kiss her.

"Neither do I, Lavender Lady. That's just the devil of it," he answered cryptically.

He passed out of the room and upstairs, presently returning with a couple of letters, held together by an elastic band, in his hand.

They smelt musty as he unfolded them; evidently they had not seen the light of day for a good many years. But Miles seemed to find them of extraordinary interest, for he subjected the closely written sheets to a first, and second, and even a third perusal. Then he replaced the elastic band round them and shut them away in a drawer, locking the latter carefully.

A couple of days later, Garth Trent received a note from Herrick, asking him to come and see him.

"You haven't been near us for days," it ran. "Remember Mahomet and the mountain, and as I can't come to you, look me up."

The letter, in its quiet avoidance of any reference to recent events, was like cooling rain falling upon a parched and thirsty earth.

Since the history of the court-martial had become common property, Garth had been through hell. It was extraordinary how quickly the story had leaked out, passing from mouth to mouth until there was hardly a cottage in Monkshaven that was not in possession of it, with lurid and fictitious detail added thereto.

The chambermaid at the Cliff Hotel had been the primary source of information. From the further side of the connecting-door of an adjoining room, she had listened with interest to the conversation which had taken place between Elisabeth and Sara on the day following the Haven Woods picnic, and had proceeded to circulate the news with the avidity of her class. Nor had certain gossipy members of the picnic party refrained from canvassing threadbare the significance of the unfortunate scene which had taken place on that occasion-contributory evidence to the truth of the chambermaid's account of what she had overheard.

The whole town hummed with the tale, and Garth had not long been allowed to remain in ignorance of the fact. Anonymous letters reached him almost daily-for it must be remembered that ten years of an aloof existence at Monkshaven had not endeared him to his neighbours. They had resented what they chose to consider his exclusiveness, and, now that it was so humiliatingly explained, the meaner spirits amongst them took this way of paying off old scores.

It was suggested by one of the anonymous writers that Trent's continued presence in the district was felt to be a blot on the fair fame of Monkshaven; and, by another, that should the rumours now flying hither and thither concerning the imminence of a European war materialize into fact, the French Foreign Legion offered opportunities for such as he.

Garth tore the letters into fragments, pitching them contemptuously into the waste-paper basket; but, nevertheless, they were like so many gnats buzzing about an open wound, adding to its torture.

Black Brady, with a lively recollection of the few days in gaol which Trent had procured him in recompense for his poaching proclivities, was loud in his denunciation.

"Retreated, they calls it," he observed, with fine scorn. "Runned away's the plain English of it."

And with this pronouncement all the loafers round the hotel garage cordially agreed, and, subsequently, black looks and muttered comments followed Garth's appearance in the streets.

To all of which Garth opposed a stony indifference-since, after all, these lesser things were of infinitely small moment to a man whose whole life was lying in ruins about him.

"It was good of you to ask me over," he told Herrick, as they shook hands. "Sure you're not afraid of contamination?"

"Quite sure," replied Miles, smiling serenely. "Besides, I had a particular reason for wishing to see you."

"What was that?"

Miles unlocked the drawer where he had laid aside the papers he had perused with so much interest two days ago, and, slipping them out of the elastic bands that held them, handed them to Trent.

"I'd like you to read those documents, if you will," he said.

There was a short silence while Trent's eyes travelled swiftly down the closely written sheets. When he looked up from their perusal his expression was perfectly blank. Miles could glean nothing from it.

"Well?" he said tentatively.

Garth quietly tendered him back the letters.

"You shouldn't believe everything you hear, Herrick," was all he vouchsafed.

"Then it isn't true?" asked Miles searchingly.

"It sounds improbable," replied Trent composedly.

Miles reflected a moment. Then, slowly replacing the papers within the elastic band, he remarked-

"I think I'll take Sara's opinion."

If he had desired to break down the other's guard of indifference, he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.

Trent sprang to his feet, his hand outstretched as though to snatch the letters back again. His eyes blazed excitedly.

"No! No! You mustn't do that-you can't do that! It's--Oh! You won't understand-but those papers must be destroyed."

Herrick's fingers closed firmly round the papers in question, and he slipped them into the inside pocket of his coat.

"They certainly will not be destroyed," he replied. "I hold them in trust. But, tell me, why should I not show them to Sara? It seems to me the one obvious thing to do."

Trent shook his head.

"No. Believe me, it could do no good, and it might do an infinity of harm."

Herrick looked incredulous.

"I can't see that," he objected.

"It is so, nevertheless."

A silence fell between them.

"Then you mean," said Herrick, breaking it at last, "that I'm to hold my tongue?"

"Just that."

"It is very unfair."

"And if you published that information abroad, it's unfair to Tim. Have you thought of that? He, at least, is perfectly innocent."

"But, man, it's inconceivable-grotesque!"

"Not at all. I gave Elisabeth Durward my promise, and she has married and borne a son, trusting to that promise. My lips are closed-now and always."

"But mine are not."

"They will be, Miles, if I ask it. Don't you see, there's no going back for me now? I can't wipe out the past. I made a bad mistake-a mistake many a youngster similarly circumstanced might have made. And I've been paying for it ever since. I must go on paying to the end-it's my honour that's involved. That's why I ask you not to show those letters."

Miles looked unconvinced.

"I forged my own fetters, Herrick," continued Trent. "In a way, I'm responsible for Tim Durward's existence and I can't damn his chances at the outset. After all, he's at the beginning of things. I'm getting towards the end. At least"-wearily-"I hope so."

Herrick's quick glance took in the immense alteration the last few days had wrought in Trent's appearance. The man had aged visibly, and his face was worn and lined, the eyes burning feverishly in their sockets.

"You're good for another thirty or forty years, bar accidents," said Herrick at last, deliberately. "Are you going to make those years worse than worthless to you by this crazy decision?"

"I've no alternative. Good Lord, man!"-with savage irritability-"you don't suppose I'm enjoying it, do you? But I've no way out. I took a certain responsibility on myself-and I must see it through. I can't shirk it now, just because pay-day's come. I can do nothing except stick it out."

"And what about Sara?" said Herrick quietly. "Has she no claim to be considered?"

He almost flinched from the look of measureless anguish that leapt into the others man's eyes in response.

"For God's sake, man, leave Sara out of it!" Garth exclaimed thickly. "I've cursed myself enough for the suffering I've brought on her. I was a mad fool to let her know I cared. But I thought, as Garth Trent, that I had shut the door on the past. I ought to have known that the door of the past remains eternally ajar."

Miles nodded understandingly.

"I don't think you were to blame," he said. "It's Mrs. Durward who has pulled the door wide open. She's stolen your new life from you-the life you had built up. Trent, you owe that woman nothing! Let me show this letter, and the other that goes with it, to Sara!"

Trent shook his head in mute refusal.

"I can't," he said at last. "Elisabeth must be forgiven. The best woman in the world may lose all sense of right and wrong when it's a question of her child. But, even so, I can't consent to the making public of that letter." He rose and paced the room restlessly. "Man! Man!" he cried at last, coming to a halt in front of Herrick. "Can't you see-that woman trusted me with her whole life, and with the life of any child that she might bear, when she married on the strength of my promise. And I must keep faith with her. It's the one poor rag of honour left me, Herrick!"-with intense bitterness.

There was a long silence. Then, at last, Miles held out his hand.

"You've beaten me," he said sadly. "I won't destroy the letters. As I said, they are a trust. But the secret is safe with me, after this. You've tied my hands."

Trent smiled grimly.

"You'll get used to it," he commented. "Mine have been tied for three-and-twenty years-though even yet I don't wear my bonds with grace, precisely."

He had become once more the hermit of old acquaintance-sardonic, harsh, his emotions hidden beneath that curt indifference of manner with which those who knew him were painfully familiar.

The two men shook hands in silence, and a few minutes later, Herrick, left alone, replaced the letters in the drawer whence he had taken them, and, turning the key upon them, slipped it into his pocket.

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