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   Chapter 31 THE FURNACE

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 10454

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

As Sara took her seat on board the train for Monkshaven, she was conscious of that strange little thrill of the wanderer returned which is the common possession of the explorer and of the school-girl at their first sight of the old familiar scenes from which they have been exiled.

She could hardly believe that barely a year had elapsed since she had quitted Monkshaven. So many things had happened-so many changes taken place. Audrey had been transformed into Mrs. Herrick; Tim had been given a commission; and Molly, the one-time butterfly, was now become a working-bee-a member of the V.A.D. and working daily at Oldhampton Hospital. Sara could scarcely picture such a metamorphosis!

The worst news had been that of Major Durward's death-he had been killed in action, gallantly leading his men, in the early part of the year. Elisabeth had written to Sara at the time-a wonderfully brave, simple letter, facing her loss with a fortitude which Sara, remembering her adoration for her husband and her curious antipathy to soldiering as a profession, had not dared to anticipate. There was something rather splendid about her quiet acceptance of it. It was Elisabeth at her best-humanly hurt and broken, but almost heroic in her endurance now that the blow had actually fallen. And Sara prayed that no further sacrifice might be demanded from her-prayed that Tim might come through safely. For herself, she mourned Geoffrey Durward as one good comrade does another. She knew that his death would leave a big gap in the ranks of those she counted friends.

It had been a wonderful year-that year which she had passed in France-wonderful in its histories of tragedy and self-sacrifice, and in its revelation both of the brutality and of the infinite fineness of humanity. Few could have passed through such an experience and remained unchanged, certainly no one as acutely sentient and receptive as Sara.

She felt as though she had been pitchforked into a vast melting-pot, where the cast-iron generalizations and traditions which most people consider their opinions grew flexible and fluid in the scorching heat of the furnace, assimilating so much of the other ingredients in the cauldron that they could never reassume their former unqualified and rigid state.

And now that year of crowded life and ardent service was over, and she was side-tracked by medical orders for an indefinite period.

"Go back to England," her doctor had told her, "to the quietest corner in the country you can find-and try to forget that there is a war!"

This thin, eager-faced young woman, of whom every one on the hospital staff spoke in such glowing terms, interested him enormously. He could see that her year's work had taken out of her about double what it would have taken out of any one less sensitively alive, and he made a shrewd guess that something over and above the mere hard work accounted for that curiously fine-drawn look which he had observed in her.

During a hastily snatched meal, before the advent of another batch of casualties, he had sounded Lady Arronby on the subject. The latter shook her head.

"I can tell you very little. I believe there was a bad love-affair just before the war. All I know is that she was engaged and that the engagement was broken off very suddenly."

"Humph! And she's been living on her reserves ever since. Pack her off to England-and do it quick."

So October found Sara back in England once again, and as the train steamed into Monkshaven station, and her eager gaze fell on the little group of people on the platform, waiting to welcome her return, she felt a sudden rush of tears to her eyes.

She winked them away, and leaned out of the window. They were all there-big Dick Selwyn, and Molly, looking like a masquerading Venus in her V.A.D. uniform, the Lavender Lady and Miles, and-radiant and well-turned-out as ever-Mile's wife.

The Herrick's wedding had taken place very unobtrusively. About a month after Sara had crossed to France, Miles and Audrey had walked quietly into church one morning at nine o'clock and got married.

Monkshaven had been frankly disappointed. The gossips, who had so frequently partaken of Audrey's hospitality and then discussed her acrimoniously, had counted upon the lavish entertainment with which, even in war-time, the wedding of a millionaire's widow might be expected to be celebrated.

Instead of which, there had been this "hole-and-corner" sort of marriage, as the disappointed femininity of Monkshaven chose to call it, and, after a very brief honeymoon, Miles and Audrey had returned and thrown themselves heart and soul into the work of organizing and equipping a convalescent hospital for officers, of which Audrey had undertaken to bear the entire cost.

Henceforth the mouths of Audrey's detractors were closed. She was no longer "that shocking little widow with the dyed hair," but a woman who had married into a branch of one of the oldest families in the county, and whose immense private fortune had enabled her to give substantial help to her country in its need.

"I think it's simply splendid of you, Audrey," declared Sara warmly, as they were all partaking of tea at Greenacres, whither Aud

rey's car had borne them from the station.

Audrey laughed.

"My dear, what else could I do with my money? I've got such a sickening lot of it, you see! Besides"-with a bantering glance at her husband-"I think it was only the prospect of being of some use at my hospital which induced Miles to marry me! He's my private secretary, you know, and boss of the commissariat department."

Miles saluted.

"Quartermaster, at your service, miss," he said cheerfully, adding with a chuckle: "I saw my chance of getting a job if I married Audrey, so of course I took it."

He was looking amazingly well. The fact of being of some use in the world had acted upon him like a tonic, and there was no misinterpreting the glance of complete and happy understanding that passed between him and his wife.

Glad as she was to see it, it served to remind Sara painfully of all that she had missed, to stir anew the aching longing for Garth Trent, which, though struggled against, and beaten down, and sometimes temporarily crowded out by the thousand claims of each day's labour, had been with her all through the long months of her absence from Monkshaven.

It was this which had worn her so fine, not the hard physical work that she had been doing. Always slender, and built on racing lines, there was something almost ethereal about her now, and her sombre eyes looked nearly double their size in her small face of which the contour was so painfully distinct. Yet she was as vivid and alive as ever; she seemed to diffuse, as it were, a kind of spiritual brilliance.

"She makes one think of a flame," Audrey told her husband when they were alone once more. "There is something so vital about her, in spite of that curiously frail look she has."

Miles nodded.

"She's burning herself out," he said briefly.

Audrey looked startled.

"What do you mean, Miles?"

"Good Heavens! I should think it's self-evident. She's exactly as much in love with Trent as she was a year ago, and she's fighting against it every hour of her life. And the strain's breaking her."

"Can't we do something to help?" Audrey put her question with a helpless consciousness of its futility.

Herrick's eyes kindled.

"Nothing," he answered with quiet decision. "Every one must work out his own salvation-if it's to be a salvation worth having."

Herrick had delved to the root of the matter when he had declared that Sara was exactly as much in love as she had been a year ago.

She had realized this for herself, and it had converted life into an endless conflict between her love for Garth and her shamed sense of his unworthiness. And now, her return to Monkshaven, to its familiar, memory-haunted scenes, had quickened the struggle into new vitality.

With the broadened outlook born of her recent experiences, she began to ask herself whether a man need be condemned, utterly and for ever, for a momentary loss of nerve-even Elisabeth had admitted that it was probably no more than that! And then, conversely, her fierce detestation of that particular form of weakness, inculcated in her from her childhood by Patrick Lovell, would spring up protestingly, and she would shrink with loathing from the thought that she had given her love to a man who had been convicted of that very thing.

Nor was the attitude he had assumed in regard to the war calculated to placate her. She had learned from Molly that he had abstained from taking up any form of war-work whatsoever. He appeared to be utterly indifferent to the need of the moment, and the whole of Monkshaven buzzed with patriotic disapprobation of his conduct. There were few idle hands there now. A big munitions factory had been established at Oldhampton, and its demands, added to the necessities of the hospital, left no loophole of excuse for slackers.

Sara reflected bitterly that the sole courage of which Garth seemed possessed was a kind of cold, moral courage-brazen-facedness, the townspeople termed it-which enabled him to refuse doggedly to be driven out of Monkshaven, even though the whole weight of public opinion was dead against him.

And then the recollection of that day on Devil's Hood Island, when he had deliberately risked his life to save her reputation, would return to her with overwhelming force-mocking the verdict of the court-martial, repudiating the condemnation which had made her thrust him out of her life.

So the pendulum swung, this way and that, lacerating her heart each time it swept forward or back. But the blind agony of her recoil, when she had first learned the story of that tragic happening on the Indian frontier, was passed.

Then, overmastered by the horror of the thing, she had flung violently away from Garth, feeling herself soiled and dishonoured by the mere fact of her love for him, too revolted to contemplate anything other than the severance of the tie between them as swiftly as possible.

Now, with the widened sympathies and understanding which the past year of intimacy with human nature at its strongest, and at its weakest, had brought her, new thoughts and new possibilities were awaking within her.

The furnace-that fiercely burning furnace of life at its intensest-had done its work.

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