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   Chapter 32 ON CRABTREE MOOR

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 20179

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

"Tim is wounded, and has been recommended for the Military Cross."

Sara made the double announcement quite calmly. The two things so often went together-it was the grey and gold warp and waft of war with which people had long since grown pathetically familiar.

"How splendid!" Molly enthused with sparkling eyes, adding quickly, "I hope he's not very badly wounded?"

"Elisabeth doesn't give any particulars in her letter. I can't understand her," Sara continued, her brows contracting in a puzzled fashion. "She seems so calm about it. She has always hated the idea of Tim's soldiering, yet now, although she's lost her husband and her son is wounded, she's taking it finely."

Selwyn looked up from filling his pipe.

"She's answering to the call-like every one else," he observed quietly.

"No." Sara shook her head. "I don't feel as though it were that. It's something more individual. Perhaps"-thoughtfully-"it's pride of a kind. The sort of impression I have is that she's so proud-so proud of Geoffrey's fine death, and of Tim's winning the Military Cross, that it has compensated in some way."

"The war's full of surprises," remarked Molly reflectively. "I never was so astonished in my life as when I found that Lester Kent's wife believed him to be a model of all the virtues! I wrote and told you-didn't I, Sara?-that he was sent to Oldhampton Hospital? He got smashed up, driving a motor ambulance, you know."

"Yes, you wrote and said that he died in hospital."

"Well, his wife came to see him, with her little boy. She was the sweetest thing, and so plucky. 'My dear,' she said to me, after it was all over, 'I hope you'll find a husband as dear and good. He was so loyal and true-and now that he's gone, I shall always have that to remember!'" Molly's eyes had grown very big and bright. "Oh! Sara," she went on, catching her breath a little, "supposing you hadn't brought me home-that night, she would have had no beautiful memory to help her now."

"And yet the memory is an utterly false one-though I suppose it will help her just the same! It's knowing the truth that hurts, sometimes." And Sara's lips twisted a little. "What a droll world it is-of shame and truth all mixed up-the ugly and the beautiful all lumped together!"

"And just now," put in Selwyn quietly, "it's so full of beauty."

"Beauty?" exclaimed both girls blankly.

Selwyn nodded, his eyes luminous.

"Isn't heroism beautiful-and self-sacrifice?" he said. "And this war's full of it. Sometimes, when I read the newspapers, I think God Himself must be surprised at the splendid things the men He made have done."

Sara turned away, swept by the recollection of one man she knew who had nothing splendid, nothing glorious, to his credit. Almost invariably, any discussion of the war ended by hurting her horribly.

"I'll take that basket of flowers across to the 'Convalescent' now, I think," she said, rising abruptly from her seat by the fire.

Selwyn nodded, mentally anathematizing himself for having driven her thoughts inward, and Molly, who had developed amazingly of late, tactfully refrained from offering to accompany her.

The Convalescent Hospital, situated on the crest of a hill above the town, was a huge mansion which had been originally built by a millionaire named Rattray, who, coming afterwards to financial grief, had found himself too poor to live in it when it was completed. It had been frankly impossible as a dwelling for any one less richly dowered with this world's goods, and, in consequence, when the place was thrown on the market, no purchaser would be found for it-since Monkshaven offered no attraction to millionaires in general.

Since then it had been known as Rattray's Folly, and it was not until Audrey cast covetous eyes upon it for her convalescent soldiers that the "Folly" had served any purpose other than that of a warning to people not to purchase boots too big for them.

A short cut from Sunnyside to the hospital lay through Crabtree Moor, and as Sara took her way across the rough strip of moorland, dotted with clumps of gorse and heather, her thoughts flew back to that day when she and Garth had encountered Black Brady there, and to the ridiculous quarrel which had ensued in consequence of Garth's refusal to condone the man's offence. For days they had not spoken to each other.

Looking backward, how utterly insignificant seemed that petty disagreement now! Had she but known the bitter separation that must come, she would have let no trifling difference, such as this had been, rob her of a single precious moment of their friendship.

She wondered if she and Garth would ever meet again. She had been back in Monkshaven for some weeks now, but he had studiously avoided meeting her, shutting himself up within the solitude of Far End.

And then, with her thoughts still centred round the man she loved, she lifted her eyes and saw him standing quite close to her. He was leaning against a gate which gave egress from the moor into an adjacent pasture field towards which her steps were bent. His arms, loosely folded, rested upon the top of the gate, and he was looking away from her towards the distant vista of sea and cliff. Evidently he had not heard her light footsteps on the springy turf, for he made no movement, but remained absorbed in his thoughts, unconscious of her presence.

Sara halted as though transfixed. For an instant the whole world seemed to rock, and a black mist rose up in front of her, blotting out that solitary figure at the gateway. Her heart beat in great, suffocating throbs, and her throat ached unbearably, as if a hand had closed upon it and were gripping it so tightly that she could not breathe. Then her senses steadied, and her gaze leapt to the face outlined in profile against the cold background of the winter sky.

Her searching eyes, poignantly observant, sensed a subtle difference in it-or, perhaps, less actually a difference than a certain emphasizing of what had been before only latent and foreshadowed. The lean face was still leaner than she had known it, and there were deep lines about the mouth-graven. And the mouth itself held something sternly sweet and austere about the manner of its closing-a severity of self-discipline which one might look to see on the lips of a man who has made the supreme sacrifice of his own will, bludgeoning his desires into submission in response to some finely conceived impulse.

The recognition of this, of the something fine and splendid that had stamped itself on Garth's features, came to Sara in a sudden blazoning flash of recognition. This was not-could not be the face of a weak man or a coward! And for one transcendent moment of glorious belief sheer happiness overwhelmed her.

But, in the same instant, the damning facts stormed up at her-the verdict of the court-martial, the details Elisabeth had supplied, above all, Garth's own inability to deny the charge-and the light of momentary ecstasy flared and went out in darkness.

An inarticulate sound escaped her, forced from her lips by the pang of that sudden frustration of leaping hope, and, hearing it, Garth turned and saw her.

"Sara!" The name rushed from his lips, shaken with a tumult of emotion. And then he was silent, staring at her across the little space that separated them, his hand gripping the topmost bar of the gate as though for actual physical support.

The calm of his face, that lofty serenity which had been impressed upon it, was suddenly all broken up.

"Sara!" he repeated, a ring of incredulity in his tones.

"Yes," she said flatly. "I've come back."

She moved towards him, trying to control the trembling that had seized her limbs.

"I-I've just come back from France," she added, making a lame attempt to speak conventionally.

It was an effort to hold out her hand, and, when his closed around it, she felt her whole body thrill at his touch, just as it had been wont to thrill in those few, short, golden days when their mutual happiness had been undarkened by any shadow from the past. Swiftly, as though all at once afraid, she snatched her hand from his clasp.

"What have you been doing in France?" he asked.

"Nursing," she answered briefly. "Did you think I could stay here and do-nothing, at such a time as this?"

There was accusation in her tone, but if he felt that her speech reflected in any way upon himself, he showed no sign of it. His eyes were roving over her, marking the changes wrought in the year that had passed since they had met-the sharpened contour of her face, the too slender body, the white fragility of the bare hand which grasped the handle of the basket she was carrying.

"You are looking very ill," he said, at last, abruptly.

"I'm not ill," she replied indifferently. "Only a bit over-tired. As soon as I have had a thorough rest I am going back to France."

"You won't go back there again?" he exclaimed sharply. "You're not fit for such work!"

"Certainly I shall go back-as soon as ever Dr. Selwyn will let me. It's little enough to do for the men who are giving-everything!" Suddenly, the pent-up indignation within her broke bounds. "Garth, how can you stay here when men are fighting, dying-out there?" Her voice vibrated with the sense of personal shame which his apathy inspired in her. "Oh!"-as though she feared he might wound her yet further by advancing the obvious excuse-"I know you're past military age. But other men-older men than you-have gone. I know a man of fifty who bluffed and got in! There are heaps of back doors into the Army these days."

"And there's a back door out of it-the one through which I was kicked out!" he retorted, his mouth setting itself in the familiar bitter lines.

The scoffing defiance of his attitude baffled her.

"Don't you want to help your country?" she pleaded. It was horrible to her that he should stand aside-inexplicable except in terms of that wretched business on the Indian Frontier, in the hideous truth of which only his own acknowledgment had compelled her t

o believe.

He looked at her with hard, indifferent eyes.

"My country made me an outcast," he replied. "I'll remain such."

Somehow, even in her shamed bewilderment and anger, she sensed the hurt that lay behind the curt speech.

"Men who have been cashiered, men who are too old-they're all going back," she urged tremulously, snatching at any weapon that suggested itself.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Let them!"

She stared at him in silence. She felt exactly as though she had been beating against a closed door. With a gesture of hopelessness she turned away, recognizing the futility of pleading with him further.

"One moment"-he stepped in front of her, barring her path. "I want an answer to a question before you go."

There was something of his old arrogance in the demand-the familiar, dominating quality which had always swayed her. Despite herself, she yielded to it now.

"Well?" she said unwillingly. "What is it you wish to know?"

"I want to know if you are engaged to Tim Durward."

For an instant the colour rushed into Sara's white face; then it ebbed away, leaving it paler than before.

"No," she said quietly. "I am not." She lifted her eyes, accusing, passionately reproachful, to his. "How could you-even ask me that? Did you ever believe I loved you?" she went on fiercely. "And if I did-could I care for any one else?"

A look of triumph leapt into his eyes.

"You care still, then?" he asked, and in his voice was blent all the exultation, and the wonder, and the piercing torment of love itself.

Sara felt herself slipping, knew that she was losing her hold of herself. Soon she would be a-wash in a sea of love, helpless to resist as a bit of driftwood, and then the waters would close over her head and she would be drawn down into the depths of shame which yielding to her love for Garth involved.

She must go-leave him while she had the power. Summoning up her strength, she faced him.

"I do," she answered steadily. "But I pray God every night of my life that I may soon cease to care."

And with those few words, limitless in their scorn-for him, and for herself because she still loved him-she turned to go.

But their contempt seemed to pass him by. His eyes burned.

"So Elisabeth has played her stake-and lost!" he muttered to himself. "Ah! Pardon!" he drew aside as she almost brushed past him in her sudden haste to escape-to get away-and stood, with bared head, his eyes fixed on her receding figure.

Soon a bend in the path through the fields hid her from his sight. But, long after she had disappeared, he remained leaning, motionless, against the gateway through which she had passed, his face immobile, twisted and drawn so that it resembled some sculptured mask of Pain, his eyes staring straight in front of him, blank and unseeing.

"Hullo, Trent!"

Miles Herrick, returning from the town to the hospital and taking, like every one else, the short cut across the fields, waved a friendly arm as he caught sight of Garth's figure silhouetted against the sky-line.

Then he drew nearer, and the set, still face of the other filled him with a sudden sense of dismay. There was a new look in it, a kind of dogged hopelessness. It entirely lacked that suggestion of austere sweetness which had made it so difficult to reconcile his smirched reputation with the man himself.

"What is it, Garth?" Instinctively Miles slipped into the more familiar appellation.

Trent looked at him blankly. It seemed as though he had not heard the question, or, at any rate, had not taken in its meaning.

"What did you say?" he muttered, his brows contracting painfully.

Miles slung the various packages with which he was burdened on to the ground, and leaned up leisurely against the gatepost. It was characteristic of him that, although the day was never long enough for the work he crowded into it, he could always find time to give a helping hand to a pal with his back against the wall.

"Out with it, man!" he said. "What's up?"

Slowly recognition came back in the other's eyes.

"What I might have anticipated," he answered, at last, in a curious flat voice, devoid of expression. "I've sunk a degree or two lower in Sara's estimation since the war broke out."

Miles regarded him quietly for a moment, a queer, half-humorous glint in his eyes.

"I suppose she doesn't know you've half-beggared yourself, helping on the financial side?"

"A man could hardly do less, could he?" he returned awkwardly. "But if she did know-which she doesn't-it would make no earthly difference."

"Then-it's because you're not soldiering?"

"Exactly. I've not volunteered."

"Well"-composedly-"why don't you?"

Trent laughed shortly.

"That's my affair."

"With your physique you could wangle the age limit," pursued Miles imperturbably.

"I should have to 'wangle' a good deal more than that,"-harshly. "Have you forgotten that I was chucked from the Army?"

"There's such a thing as enlisting under another name."

"There is-and then of running up against one of the old crowd and being recognized! It isn't so easy to lose your identity. I've had my lesson on that."

Miles looked away quickly. The hard, implacable stare of the other man's eyes, with the blazing defiance, hurt him. It spoke too poignantly of a bitterness that had eaten into the heart. But he had put his hand to the plough, and he refused to turn back.

"Wouldn't it"-he spoke with a sudden gentleness, the gentleness of the surgeon handling a torn limb-"wouldn't it help to straighten things out with Sara?"

"If it did, it would only make matters worse. No. Take it from me, Herrick, that soldiering is the one thing of all others I can't do."

He turned away as though to signify that the discussion was at an end.

"I don't see it," persisted Miles. "On the contrary, it's the one thing that might make her believe in you. In spite of that Indian Frontier business."

Garth swung suddenly round, a dull, dangerous gleam in his eyes. But Miles bore the savage glance serenely. He had applied the spur with intention. The other was suffering-suffering intolerably-in a dumb silence that shut him in alone with his agony. That silence must be broken, no matter what the means.

"You'd wipe out the stigma of cowardice, if you volunteered," he went on deliberately.

Garth laughed derisively.

"Cut it out, Herrick," he flung back. "I'm not a damned story-book hero, out for whitewash and the V.C."

But Miles continued undeterred.

"And you'd convince Sara," he finished quietly.

A stifled exclamation broke from Garth.

"To what end?" he burst out violently. "Can't you realize that's just the one thing in the world forbidden me? Sara is-oh, well, it's impossible to say what she is, but I suppose most good women are half angel. And if I gave her the smallest chance, she'd begin to believe in me again-to ask questions I cannot answer. . . . What's the use? I can't get away from the court-martial and all that followed. I can't clear myself. And I could never offer Sara anything more than a name that has been disgraced-a miserable half-life with a man who can't hold up his head amongst his fellows! Yes"-answering the unspoken question in Herrick's eyes-"I know what you're thinking-that I was willing to marry her once. But I believed, then, that-Garth Trent had cut himself free from the past. Now I know"-more quietly-"that there is no such thing as getting away from the mistakes one has made. . . . I'm tied hand and foot-every way! And it's better Sara should continue to think the worst of me. Then, in the future, she may find some sort of happiness-with Durward, perhaps." His lips greyed a little, but he went on. "The worse she thinks me, the easier it will be for her to cut me out of her life."

"Then do you mean"-Miles spoke very slowly-that you are-deliberately-holding back from soldiering?"

"Quite deliberately!" It was like the snap of a tormented animal, baited beyond bearing. "If I could go with a clean name, as other men can--Good God, man! Do you think I haven't thought it out-knocked my head against every stone wall in the whole damned business?"

Miles was silent. There was so much of truth in all Garth said, so much of warped vision, biased by the man's profound bitterness of soul, that he could find no answer.

After a moment Garth spoke again, jerkily, as though under pressure.

"There's my promise to Elisabeth, as well. That binds me if I were recognized and taxed with my identity. I should have to hold my peace-and stick it all over again! . . . There's a limit to a man's endurance."

Then, after a pause: "If I could go-and be sure of not returning"-grimly-"I'd go to-morrow-the Foreign Legion, anyway. But sometimes a man hasn't even the right to get himself neatly killed out of the way."

"What are you driving at now?"

"I should think it's plain enough! Don't you see what it would mean to Sara if-that-happened? She'd never believe-afterwards-that I'm as black as I'm painted, and I should saddle her with an intolerable burden of self-reproach. No, the Army is a closed door for me. . . . Damn it, Herrick!" with the sudden nervous violence of a man goaded past endurance. "Can't you understand? I ought never to have come into her life at all. I've only messed things up for her-damnably. The least I can do is to clear out of it so that she'll never regret my going. . . . I've gone under, and a man who's gone under had better stay there."

Both men were silent-Trent with the bitter, brooding silence of a man who has battered uselessly against the bars that hem him in, and who at last recognizes that they can never be forced asunder, Herrick trying to focus his vision to that of the man beside him.

"No"-Garth spoke with a finality there was no disputing-"I've been buried three-and-twenty years, and my resurrection hasn't been exactly a success. There's no place in the world for me unless some one else pays the price. It's better for every one concerned that I should-stay buried."

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