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   Chapter 33 OVER THE MOUNTAINS

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 16924

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"He didn't do it!"

Suddenly, Sara found herself saying the words aloud in the darkness and solitude of the night.

Since her meeting with Garth, on her way to the hospital, every hour had been an hour of conflict. That brief, strained interview had shaken her to the depths of her being, and, unable to sleep when night came, she had lain, staring wide-eyed into the dark, struggling against its influence.

Little enough had been said. It had been the silences, the dumb, passion-filled silences, vibrant with all that must not be spoken, which had tried her endurance to the utmost, and she had fled, at last, incontinently, because she had felt her resolution weakening each moment she and Garth remained together-because, with him beside her, the love against which she had been fighting for twelve long months had wakened into fierce life again, beating down her puny efforts to withstand it.

The mere sound of his voice, the lightest touch of his hand, had power to thrill her from head to foot, to rock those barriers which his own act had forced her to build up between them.

The recollection of that one perfect moment, when the serene austerity of his face had given the lie to that of which he was accused, lingered with her, a faint elusive thread of hope which would not leave her, urging, suggesting, combating the hard facts to which he himself had given ruthless confirmation.

Almost without her cognizance, Sara's characteristic, vehement belief in whomsoever she loved-stunned at the first moment of Elisabeth's revelation-had been gradually creeping back to feeble, halting life, weakened at times by the mass of evidence arrayed against it, yet still alive-growing and strengthening secretly within her as an unborn babe grows and strengthens.

And since that moment on the moor, when her eyes had searched Garth's face-his face with the mask off-the dormant belief within her had sprung into conscious knowledge.

Throughout the long hours of the night she had fought against it, deeming it but the passionate outcome of her love for the man himself. She wanted to believe him innocent; it was only her love for him which had raised this phantom doubt of the charges brought against him; the wish had been father to the thought. So she told herself, struggling conscientiously against that to which she longed to yield.

And then, making a mockery of the hateful thing of which he had been accused, her individual knowledge of Garth himself rose up and confronted her accusingly.

Nothing that she had ever known of him had pointed to any lack of courage. It had been on no sudden, splendid impulse of a moment that he had plunged into the sea and fought that treacherous, racing tide off Devil's Hood Island. Quite composedly, deliberately, he had calculated the risks-and taken them!

Once more, she recalled the vision of his face as she had seen it yesterday, in that instant before he had perceived her nearness to him-strong and steadfast, imprinted with a disciplined nobility-and the repudiation of his dishonour leapt spontaneously from her lips.

"He didn't do it!"

She had spoken involuntarily, the thought rushing into words before she was aware, and the sound of her own voice in the darkness startled her. It seemed almost like a voice from some Otherwhere, authoritatively assuring her of all she had ached to believe.

She lay back on her pillows, smiling a little at the illusion. But the sense of peace, of blessed assuredness, remained with her. She had struggled through the darkness of those bitter months of unbelief, and now she had come out into the light on the other side. She felt dreamily contented and at rest, and presently she fell asleep, trustfully, as a little child may sleep, the smile still on her lips.

With morning came reaction-blank, sordid reaction, depressing her unutterably.

Amid the score of trifling details incidental to the day's arrangements, with the usual uninspiring conversation prevalent at the breakfast-table going on around her, the mood of the previous night, informed, as it had been, with that triumphant sense of exaltation, slipped from her like a garment.

Supposing she were to tell them-to tell Selwyn and Molly-that, without any further evidence, she was convinced of Garth's innocence? Why, they would think she had gone mad! Regretfully, with infinite pain it might be, but still none the less conclusively, they had accepted the fact of his guilt. And indeed, what else could be expected of them, seeing that he had himself acknowledged it?

And yet-that inner feeling of belief which had stirred into new life refused to be repressed.

Mechanically she went about the small daily duties which made up life at Sunnyside-interviewed Jane Crab, read the newspapers to Mrs. Selwyn, accomplished the necessary shopping in the town, each and all with a mind that was only superficially concerned with the matter in hand, while, behind this screen of commonplace routine, she felt as though her soul were struggling impotently to release itself from the bonds which had bound it in a tyranny of anguish for twelve long months.

In the afternoon, she paid a visit to the Convalescent Hospital. She made a practice of going there at least once a day and giving what assistance she could. Frequently she relieved Miles of part of his secretarial work, or checked through with him the invoices of goods received. There were always plenty of odd jobs to be done, and, after her strenuous work in France, she found it utterly impossible to settle down to the life of masterly inactivity which Selwyn had prescribed for her.

Audrey greeted her with a little flurry of excitement.

"Do you know that there was a Zepp over Oldhampton last night?" she asked, as they went upstairs together. "Did you hear it?"

Sara shook her head. The memory of the previous night surged over her like the memory of a vivid dream-the absolute assurance it had brought her of Garth's innocence, an assurance which had grown vague and doubtful with the daylight, just as the happenings of a dream grow blurred and indistinct.

"No, I didn't hear anything," she replied absently. "Did they do much damage? I suppose they were after the munitions factory?"

"Yes. They dropped one bomb, that's all. It fell in a field, luckily. But goodness knows how they got over without any one's spotting them! Everybody's asking where our search-lights were. As for our anti-aircraft guns, they've never had the opportunity yet to do anything more than try our nerves by practicing! And last night a golden opportunity came and went unobserved."

"The milkman was babbling to Jane about Zeppelins this morning, but I thought it was probably only the result of overnight potations at 'The Jolly Sailorman.'"

"No, it was the real thing-'made in Germany,'" smiled Audrey. "I begin to feel as if we were quite the hub of the universe, now that the Zepps have acknowledged our existence."

They paused outside the door of the room allotted to her husband's activities.

"Miles will be glad to see you to-day," she pursued. "He's bemoaning a new manifestation of war-fever among the feminine population of Monkshaven. Go in to him, will you? I must run off-I've got a million things to see to. You're not looking very fit to-day"-suddenly observing the other's white face and shadowed eyes. "Are you feeling up to work?"

Sara nodded indifferently.

"Quite," she said. "I shouldn't have come otherwise."

Miles welcomed her joyfully.

"Bless you, my dear!" he exclaimed. "You're the very woman I wanted to see. I'm snowed under with fool letters from females anxious to entertain 'our poor, brave, wounded officers.' Head 'em off, will you?" He thrust a bundle of letters into her hands. Then, as she moved toward the windows, and the cold, searching light of the wintry sunshine fell full on her face, his voice altered. "What is it? What has happened, Sara?" he asked quickly.

She looked at him dumbly. Her lips moved, but no sound came. The sudden question, accompanied by the swift, penetrating glance of Miles's brown eyes, had taken her off her guard.

He limped across to her.

"Not a stroke of work for you to-day," he said decisively, taking the bundle of letters out of her hands. "Now tell me what's wrong?"

She looked away from him, a slow, shamed red creeping into her face. At last-

"I've seen Garth," she said very low.

Herrick nodded. He knew what that meeting had meant to one of these two friends of his. Now he was to see the reverse of the medal. He waited, his silence sympathetic and far more helpful than any eager, probing question, however well-intentioned.

"Miles," she burst out suddenly, "I'm-I'm wretched!"

"How's that?" He did not make the mistake of attributing her outburst to a transient mood of depression. Something deeper lay behind it.

"Since I saw Garth yesterday I've been asking myself whether-whether I've been doing him a ghastly injustice"-she moistened her dry lips-"whether he was really guilty of-running away."

"Ah!" Miles stuffed his hands in his pockets and limped the length of the room and back. In that moment, he realized something of the maddening, galling restraint of the bondage under which Garth Trent had lived for years-the bondage of silence, and, within his pickets, his hands were clenched when he halted again at Sara's side.

"Why?" he shot at her.

She hesitated. Then she caught her breath a little hysterically.

"Why-because-because I just can't believe it! . . . I've seen a lot since I went away. I've seen brave men-and I've seen men . . . who were afraid." She turned her head aside. "They-the ones who were afraid-didn't look . . . as Garth looks."

Herrick made no comment. He put a question.

"What are you going to do?"

"I don't know. I expect you think I'm a fool? I've nothing to go on-on the contrary, I've Garth's own admission that-that he was cashiered. And yet--Oh! Miles, if he were only doing anything-now-it would be easier to believe in him! But-he holds absolutely aloof. It's as though he were afraid-still."

"Have you ever thought"-Herrick spoke slowly, without looking at her-"what this year of war must have meant to a man who has been a soldier-and is one no longer?" His eyes came back to her face meditatively.

"How-what do you mean?" she whispered.

"You've only got to look at the man to know what I mean. I think-since the war broke out-that Trent has been through the bitterness of death."

"But-but he could have enlisted-got in somehow-under another name, had he wanted to fight. Or he might have gone out and driven an ambulance car-as Lester Kent did."

Sara was putting to Herrick the very arguments which had arisen in her own mind to confound the intuitive belief of which she had been conscious since that moment of inward revelation on Crabtree Moor-putting them forward in all their repulsive ugliness of fact, in the desperate hope that Herrick might find some way to refute them.

"Some men might have done, perhaps," answered Miles quietly. "But not a man of Trent's temperament. Some trees bend in a storm-and when the worst of it is past, they spring erect again. Some can't; they break."

The words recalled to Sara's mind with sudden vividness the last letter Patrick Lovell had ever written her-the one which he had left in the Chippendale bureau for her to receive after his death. He had applied almost those identical words to the Malincourt temperament, of which he had recognized the share she had inherited. And she realized that her guardian and Miles Herrick had been equally discerning. Though differing in its effect upon each of them, consequent upon individual idiosyncrasy, the fact remained that she and Garth were both "breaking" beneath the strain which destiny had imposed on them.

With the memory of Patrick's letter came an inexpressible longing for the man himself-for the kindly, helping hand which he would have stretched out to her in this crisis of her life. She felt sure that, had he been beside her now, his shrewd counsel would have cleared away the mists of doubt and indecision which had closed about her.

But since he was no longer there to be appealed to, she had turned instinctively to Herrick, and, somehow, he had failed her. He had not given her a definite expression of his own belief. She had been humanly craving to hear that he, too, believed in Garth, notwithstanding the evidence against him-that he had some explanation to offer of that ghastly tragedy of the court-martial episode. And instead, he had only hazarded some tolerant suggestions-sympathetic to Garth, it is true, but not carrying with them the vital, unqualified assurance she had longed to hear.

In spite of this, she knew that Herrick's friendship with Garth had remained unbroken by the knowledge of the Indian Frontier story. The personal relations of the two men were unchanged, and she felt as though Miles were withholding something from her, observing a reticence for which she could find no explanation. He had been very kind and understanding-it would not have been Miles had he been otherwise-but he had not helped her much. In some curious way she felt as though he had thrown the whole onus of coming to a decision, unaided by advice, upon her shoulders.

She returned to Sunnyside oppressed with a homesick longing for Patrick. The two years which had elapsed since his death had blunted the edge of her sorrow-as time inevitably must-but she still missed the shrewd, kindly, worldly-wise old man unspeakably, and just now, thrown back upon herself in some indefinable way by Miles's attitude, her whole heart cried out for that other who was gone.

She wondered if he knew how much she needed him. She almost believed that he must know-wherever he might be now, she felt that Patrick would never have forgotten the child of the woman whom, in this world, he had loved so long and faithfully.

With an instinctive craving for some tangible memory of him, she unlocked the leather case which held her mother's miniature, together with the last letter which Patrick had ever written; and, unfolding the letter, began to read it once again.

Somehow, there seemed comfort in the very wording of it, in every little characteristic phrase that had been Patrick's, in the familiar appellation, "Little old pal," which he had kept for her alone.

All at once her fingers gripped the letter more tightly, her attentions riveted by a certain passage towards the end.

". . . And when love comes to you, never forget that it is the biggest thing in the world, the one altogether good and perfect gift. Don't let any twopenny-halfpenny considerations of worldly advantage influence you, or the tittle-tattle of other folks, and even if it seems that something unsurmountable lies between you and the fulfillment of love, go over it, or round it, or through it! If it's real love, your faith must be big enough to remove the mountains in the way-or to go over them."

Had Patrick foreseen the exact circumstances in which his "little old pal" would one day find herself, he could not have written anything more strangely applicable.

Sara sat still, every nerve of her taut and strung. She felt as though she had laid bare the whole of her trouble, revealed her inmost soul in all its anguished perplexity, to those shrewd blue eyes which had been wont to see so clearly through externals, piercing infallibly to the very heart of things.

Patrick had always possessed that supreme gift of being able to separate the grain from the chaff-to distinguish unerringly between essentials and non-essentials, and now, in the quiet, wise counsel of an old letter, Sara found an answer to all the questionings that had made so bitter a thing of life.

It was almost as if some one had torn down a curtain from before her eyes, rent asunder a veil which had been distorting and obscuring the values of things.

Mountains! There were mountains indeed betwixt her and Garth-and there was no way round them or through them! But now-now she would go over them-go straight ahead, unregarding of the mountains between, to where Garth and love awaited her.

No man is all angel-or all devil. Supposing Garth had been guilty of cowardice, had had his one moment of weakness? She no longer cared! He was hers, her lover, alike in his weakness and in his strength. She had known men in France shrink in terror at the evil droning of a shell, and then die selflessly that others might live.

"Your faith must be big enough to remove the mountains in the way-or to go over them," Patrick had written.

And Sara, hiding her face in her hands, thanked God that now, at last, her faith was big enough, and that love-"the one altogether good and perfect gift"-was still hers if she would only go over the mountains.

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