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   Chapter 30 DEFEAT

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 23614

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


In remote country districts that memorable Fourth of August, when England declared war on Germany, came and went unostentatiously.

People read the news a trifle breathlessly, reflected with a sigh of contentment on the invincible British Navy, and with a little gust of prideful triumph upon the Expeditionary force-ready to the last burnished button of each man's tunic-and proceeded quietly with their usual avocations.

Then came the soaring Bank Rate, and business men on holiday raced back to London to contend with the new financial conditions and assure their credit. That was all that happened-at first.

Few foresaw that the gaunt, grim Spectre of War had come to dwell in their very midst, nor that soon he would pass from house to house, palace and cottage alike, touching first this man, then that, on the shoulder, with the single word "Come!" on his lips, until gradually the nations, one by one, left their tasks of peace and rose and followed him.

Monkshaven, in common with other seaside towns, witnessed the sudden exodus of City men when the climbing Bank Rate sounded its alarm. Beyond that, the war, for the moment, reacted very little on its daily processes of life. There was no disorganization of amusements-tennis, boating, and bathing went on much as usual, and clever people, proud of their ability to add two and two together and make four of them, announced that it was all explained now why certain young officers in the neighbourhood had been hurriedly recalled a few days previously, and their leave cancelled.

Then came the black news of that long, desperate retreat from Mons, shaking the nation to its very soul, and in the wave of high courage and endeavour that swept responsively across the country, the smaller things began to fall into their little place.

To Sara, stricken by her own individual sorrow, the war came like a rushing, mighty wind, rousing her from the brooding, introspective habit which had laid hold of her and bracing her to take a fresh grip upon life. Its immense demands, the illimitable suffering it carried in its train, lifted her out of the contemplation of her own personal grief into a veritable passion of pity for the world agony beating up around her.

And, with Sara, to compassionate meant to succour. Nor did it require more than the first few weeks of war to demonstrate where such help as she was capable of giving was most sorely needed.

She had been through a course of First Aid and held her certificate, and, thanks to a year in France when she was seventeen-a much-grudged year, at the time, since it had separated her from her beloved Patrick-and to a natural facility for the language, inherited from her French forbears, she spoke French almost as fluently as she did English.

In France they were crying out for nurses, for at that period of the war there was work for any woman who had even a little knowledge plus the grit to face the horrors of those early days, and it was to France that Sara forthwith determined to go.

She had heard that an old friend of Patrick Lovell's, Lady Arronby by name, proposed equipping and taking over to France a party of nurses, and she promptly wrote to her, begging that she might be included in the little company.

Lady Arronby, who had been a sister at a London hospital before her marriage, recollected her old friend's ward very clearly. Sara rarely failed to make a definite impression, even upon people who only knew her slightly, and Lady Arronby, who had known her from her earliest days at Barrow, answered her letter without hesitation.

"I shall be delighted to have you with me," she had written. "Even though you are not a trained nurse, there's work out there for women of your caliber, my dear. So come. It will be a week or two yet before we have all our equipment, but I am pushing things on as fast as I can, so hold yourself in readiness to come at a day's notice."

Meanwhile, Sara's earliest personal encounter with the reality of the war came in a few hurried lines from Elisabeth telling her that Major Durward had rejoined the Army and would be going out to France almost immediately.

Sara thrilled, and with the thrill came the answering stab of the sword that was to pierce her again and again through the long months ahead. Garth Trent-the man she loved-could have no part nor lot in this splendid service of England's sons for England! The country wanted brave men now-not men who faltered when faltering meant failure and defeat.

She had not seen Garth since that day-a million years ago it seemed-when she had sent him from her, and he had gone, admitting the justice of her decision.

There was no getting behind that. She would have defied Elisabeth, defied a whole world of slanderous tongues, had they accused him, if he himself had denied the charge. But he had not been able to deny it. It was true-a deadly, official truth, tabulated somewhere in the records of her country, that the man she loved had been cashiered for cowardice.

The knowledge almost crushed her, and she sometimes wondered if there could be a keener suffering, in the whole gamut of human pain, than that which a woman bears whose high pride in her lover has been laid utterly in the dust.

The dread of danger, separation-even death itself-were not comparable with it. Sara envied the women whose men were killed in action. At least, they had a splendid memory to hold which nothing could ever soil or take away.

Sometimes her thoughts wandered fugitively to Tim. Surely here was his chance to break from the bondage his mother had imposed upon him! He had not written to her of late, but she felt convinced that she would have heard from Elisabeth had he volunteered. She was a little puzzled over his silence and inaction. He had seemed so keen last winter at Barrow, when together they had discussed this very subject of soldiering. Could it be that now, when the opportunity offered, Tim was-evading it? But the thought was dismissed almost as swiftly as it had arisen, and Sara blushed scarlet with shame that the bare suspicions should have crossed her mind, even for an instant, recognizing it as the outcrop of that bitter knowledge which had cut at the very roots of her belief in men's courage.

And there were men around her whose readiness to make the great sacrifice combated the poison of one man's failure. Daily she heard of this or that man whom she knew, either personally or by name, having volunteered and been accepted, and very often she had to listen to Miles Herrick's fierce rebellion against the fact that he was ineligible, and endeavour to console him.

But it was Audrey Maynard who plumbed the full depths of bitterness in Herrick's heart. She had been teaching him to knit, and he was floundering through the intricacies of turning his first heel when one day he surprised her by hurling the sock, needles and all, to the other end of the room.

"There's work for a man when his country's at war! My God! Audrey, I don't know how I'm going to bear it-to lie here on my couch, knitting-knitting!-when men are out there dying! Why won't they take a lame man? Can't a lame man fire a gun-and then die like the rest of 'em?"

Audrey looked at him pitifully.

"My dear, war takes only the best-the youngest and the fittest. But there's plenty of work for the women and men at home."

"For the women and crocks?" countered Miles bitterly.

She smiled at him suddenly.

"Yes-for the crocks, too."

He shook his head.

"No, Audrey, I'm an utterly useless person-a cumberer of the ground."

"Not in my eyes, Miles," she answered quietly.

He met her glance, and read, at last, what-as she told him later-he might have read there any time during the last six months, had he chosen to look for it.

"Do you mean that, Audrey?" he asked, suddenly gripping her hands hard. "All of it-all that it implies?"

She slipped to her knees beside his couch.

"Oh, my dear!" she said, between laughing and crying. "I've been meaning it-'all of it'-for ever so long. Only-only you won't ask me to marry you!"

"How can I? A lame man, and not even a rich one?"

"I believe," said Audrey composedly, "we've argued both those points before-from a strictly impersonal point of view! Couldn't you-couldn't you get over your objection to coming to live with me at Greenacres, dear?"

Audrey always declared, afterwards, that it had required the most blatant encouragement on her part to induce Miles to propose to her, and that, but for the war-which convinced him that he was of no use to any one else-he never would have done so.

Presumably she was able to supply the requisite stimulus, for when the Lavender Lady joined them later on in the afternoon, she found herself called upon to perform that function of sheer delight to every old maid of the right sort-namely, to bestow her blessing on a pair of newly betrothed lovers.

Sara received the news the next morning, and though naturally, by contrast, it seemed to add a keener edge to her own grief, she was still able to rejoice whole-heartedly over this little harvesting of joy which her two friends had snatched from amid the world's dreadful harvesting of pain and sorrow.

By the same post as the radiant letters from Miles and Audrey came one from Elisabeth Durward. She wrote distractedly.

"Tim is determined to volunteer," ran her letter. "I can't let him go, Sara. He is my only son, and I don't see why he should be claimed from me by this horrible war. I have persuaded him to wait until he has seen you. That is all he will consent to. So will you come and do what you can to dissuade him? There is a cord by which you could hold him if you would."

A transient smile crossed Sara's face as she pictured Tim gravely consenting to await her opinion on the matter. He knew-none better!-what it would be, and, without doubt, he had merely agreed to the suggestion in the hope that her presence might ease the strain and serve to comfort his mother a little.

Sara telegraphed that she would come to Barrow Court the following day, and, on her arrival, found Tim waiting for her at the station in his two-seater.

"Well," he said with a grin, as the little car slid away along the familiar road. "Have you come to persuade me to be a good boy and stay at home, Sara?"

"You know I've not," she replied, smiling. "I'm gong to talk sense to Elisabeth. Oh! Tim boy, how I envy you! It's splendid to be a man these days."

He nodded silently, but she could read in his expression the tranquil satisfaction that his decision had brought. She had seen the same look on other men's faces, when, after a long struggle with the woman-love that could not help but long to hold them back, the final decision had been taken.

Arrived at the lodge gates, Tim handed over the car to the chauffeur who met them there, evidently by arrangement.

"I thought we'd walk across the park," he suggested.

Sara acquiesced delightedly. There was a tender, reminiscent pleasure in strolling along the winding paths that had once been so happily familiar, and, hardly conscious of the sudden silence which had fallen upon her companion, her thoughts slipped back to the old days at Barrow when she had wandered, with Patrick beside her in his wheeled chair, along these selfsame paths.

With a little thrill, half pain, half pleasure, she noted each well-remembered landmark. There was the arbour where they used to shelter from a shower, built with sloped boards at its entrance so that Patrick's chair could easily be wheeled into it; now they were passing the horse-chestnut tree which she herself had planted years ago-with the head gardener's assistance!-in place of one that had been struck by lightning. It had gr

own into a sturdy young sapling by this time. Here was the Queen's Bench-an old stone seat where Queen Elisabeth was supposed to have once sat and rested for a few minutes when paying a visit to Barrow Court. Sara reflected, with a smile, that if history speaks truly, the Virgin Queen must have spent quite a considerable portion of her time in visiting the houses of her subjects! And here-

"Sara!" Tim's voice broke suddenly across the recollections that were thronging into her mind. There was a curious intent quality in his tone that arrested her attention, filling her with a nervous foreboding of what he had to say.

"Sara, you know, of course, as well as I do, that I am going to volunteer. I let mother send for you, because-well, because I thought you would make it a little easier for her, for one thing. But I had another reason."

"Had you?" Sara spoke mechanically. They had paused beside the Queen's Bench, and half-unconsciously she laid her ungloved hand caressingly on the seat's high back. The stone struck cold against the warmth of her flesh.

"Yes." Tim was speaking again, still in that oddly direct manner. "I want to ask you-now, before I go to France-whether there will ever be any chance for me?"

Sara turned her eyes to his face.

"You mean--"

"I mean that I'm asking you once again if you will marry me? If you will-if I can go away leaving my wife in England, I shall have so much the more to fight for. But if you can't give me the answer I wish-well"-with a curious little smile-"it will make death easier, should it come-that's all."

The quiet, grave directness of the speech was very unlike the old, impetuous Tim of former days. It brought with it to Sara's mind a definite recognition of the fact that the man had replaced the boy.

"No, Tim," she responded quietly. "I made one mistake-in promising to marry you when I loved another man. I won't repeat it."

"But"-Tim's face expressed sheer wonder and amazement-"you don't still care for Garth Trent-for that blackguard? Oh!" remorsefully, as he saw her wince-"forgive me, Sara, but this war makes one feel even more bitterly about such a thing than one would in normal times."

"I know-I understand," she replied quietly. "I'm-ashamed of loving him." She turned her head restlessly aside. "But, don't you see, love can't be made and unmade to order. It just happens. And it's happened to me. In the circumstances, I can't say I like it. But there it is. I do love Garth-and I can't unlove him. At least, not yet."

"But some day, Sara, some day?" he urged.

She shook her head.

"I shall never marry anybody now, Tim. If-if ever I 'get over' this fool feeling for Garth, I know how it would leave me. I shall be quite cold and hard inside-like that stone"-pointing to the Queen's Bench. "I wish-I wish I had reached that stage now."

Silently Tim held out his hand, and she laid hers within it, meeting his grave eyes.

"I won't ever bother you again," he said, at last, quietly. "I think I understand, Sara, and-and, old girl, I'm awfully sorry. I wish I could have saved you-that."

He stooped his head and kissed her-frankly, as a big brother might, and Sara, recognizing that henceforth she would find in him only the good comrade of earlier days, kissed him back.

"Thank you, Tim," she said. "I knew you would understand. And, please, we won't ever speak of it again."

"No, we won't speak of it again," he answered.

He tucked his arm under hers, and they walked on together in the direction of the house.

"And now," she said, "let's go to Elisabeth and break it to her that we are-both-going out to France as soon as we can get there."

He turned to look at her.

"You?" he exclaimed. "You going out? What do you mean?"

"I'm going with Lady Arronby. I want to go-badly. I want to be in the heart of things. You don't suppose"-with a rather shaky little laugh-"that I can stay quietly at home in England-and knit, do you?"

"No, I suppose you couldn't. But I don't half like it. The women who go-out there-have got to face things. I shan't like to think of you running risks-"

She laughed outright.

"Tim, if you talk nonsense of that kind, I'll revenge myself by urging Elisabeth to keep you at home," she declared. "Oh! Tim boy, can't you see that just now I must have something to do-something that will fill up every moment-and keep me from thinking!"

Tim heard the cry that underlay the words. There was no misunderstanding it. He squeezed her arm and nodded.

"All right, old thing, I won't try to dissuade you. I can guess a little of how you're feeling."

Sara's interview with Elisabeth was very different from anything she had expected. She had anticipated passionate reproaches, tears even, for an attractive women who has been consistently spoiled by her menkind is, of all her sex, the least prepared to bow to the force of circumstances.

But there was none of these things. It almost seemed as though in that first searching glance of hers, which flashed from Sara's face to the well-beloved one of her son, Elisabeth had recognized and accepted that, in the short space of time since these two had met, the decision concerning Tim's future had been taken out of her hands.

It was only when, in the course of their long, intimate talk together, she had drawn from Sara the acknowledgment that she had once again refused to be Tim's wife, that her control wavered.

"But, Sara, surely-surely you can't still have any thought of marrying Garth Trent?" There was a hint of something like terror in her voice.

"No," Sara responded wearily. "No, I shall never marry-Garth Trent."

"Then why won't you-why can't you-"

"Marry Tim?"-quietly. "Because, although I shall never marry Garth now, I haven't stopped loving him."

"Do you mean that you can still care for him-now that you know what kind of man he is?"

"Oh! Good Heavens, Elisabeth!"-the irritation born of frayed nerves hardened Sara's voice so that it was almost unrecognizable-"you can't turn love on and off as you would a tap! I shall never marry anybody now. Tim understands that, and-you must understand it, too."

There was no mistaking her passionate sincerity. The truth-that Sara would never, as long as she lived, put another in the place Garth Trent had held-seemed borne in upon Elisabeth that moment.

With a strangled cry she sank back into her chair, and her eyes, fixed on Sara's small, stern-set face, held a strange, beaten look. As she sat there, her hands gripping the chair-arms, there was something about her whole attitude that suggested defeat.

"So it's all been useless-quite useless!" she muttered in a queer, whispering voice.

She was not looking at Sara now. Her vision was turned inward, and she seemed to be utterly oblivious of the other's presence. "Useless!" she repeated, still in that strange, whispering tone.

"What has been useless?" asked Sara curiously.

Elisabeth started, and stared at her for a moment in a vacant fashion. Then, all at once, her mind seemed to come back to the present, and simultaneously the familiar watchful look sprang into her eyes. Sara was oddly conscious of being reminded of a sentry who has momentarily slept at his post, and then, awakening suddenly, feverishly resumed his vigilance.

"What was I saying?" Elisabeth brushed her hand distressfully across her forehead.

"You said that it had all been useless," repeated Sara. "What did you mean?"

Elisabeth paused a moment before replying.

"I meant that all my hopes were useless," she explained at last. "The hopes I had that some day you would be Tim's wife."

"Yes, they're quite useless-if that is what you meant," replied Sara. But there was a perplexed expression in her eyes. She had a feeling that Elisabeth was not being quite frank with her-that that whispered confession of failure signified something other than the simple interpretations vouchsafed.

The thing worried her a little, nagging at the back of her mind with the pertinacity common to any little unexplained incident that has caught one's attention. But, in the course of a few days, the manifold happenings of daily life drove it out of her thoughts, not to recur until many months had passed and other issues paved the way for its resurgence.

Sara remained at Barrow until Tim had volunteered and been accepted, and the settlement of her own immediate plans synchronizing with this last event, it came about that it was only two hours after Tim's departure that she, too, bade farewell to Elisabeth, in order to join up in London with Lady Arronby's party.

Elisabeth stood at the head of the great flight of granite steps at Barrow and waved her hand as the car bore Sara swiftly away, and across the latter's mind flashed the memory of that day, nearly a year ago, when she herself had stood in the same place, waiting to welcome Elisabeth to her new home.

The contrast between then and now struck her poignantly. She recalled Elisabeth as she had been that day-gracious, smiling, queening it delightfully over her two big men, husband and son, who openly worshipped her. Now, there remained only a great empty house, and that solitary figure on the doorstep, standing there with white face and lips that smiled perfunctorily.

Elisabeth turned slowly back into the house as the car disappeared round the curve of the drive. For her, the moment was doubly bitter. One by one, husband, son, and the woman whom she had ardently longed to see that son's wife, had been claimed from her by the pitiless demands of the madness men call War.

But there was still more for her to face. There was the utter downfall of all her hopes, the defeat of all her purposes. She had striven with the whole force that was in her to assure Tim's happiness. To compass this, she had torn down the curtain of the past, proclaiming a man's shame and hurling headlong into the dust the new life he had built up for himself, and with it had gone a woman's faith, and trust, and happiness.

And it had all been so futile! Two lives ruined, and the purchase price paid in tears of blood; and, after all, Tim's happiness was as utterly remote and beyond attainment as though no torrent of disaster had been let loose to further it! Elisabeth had bartered her soul in vain.

In the solitude which was all the war had left her, she recognized this, and, since she was normally a woman of kind and generous impulses, she suffered in the realization of the spoiled and mutilated lives for which she was responsible.

Not that she would have acted differently were the same choice presented to her again. She did not want to hurt people, but the primitive maternal instinct, which was the pivot of her being, blinded her to the claims of others if those claims reacted adversely on her son.

Only now, in the bitterness of defeat, as she looked back upon her midnight interview with Garth Trent, she was conscious of a sick repugnance. It had not been a pleasant thing, that thrusting of a knife into an old wound. This, too, she had done for Tim's sake. The pity of it was that Garth had suffered needlessly-uselessly!

She had thought the issue of events hung solely betwixt him and her son, and, with her mind concentrated on this idea, she had overlooked the possibility of any other outcome. But the acceptance of an unexpected sequence had been forced upon her-Sara would never marry any one now! Elisabeth recognized that all her efforts had been in vain.

And the supreme bitterness, from which all that was honest and upright within her shrank with inward shame and self-loathing, lay in the fact that she, above all others, owed Garth Trent-that which he had begged of her in vain-the tribute of silence concerning the past.

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