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   Chapter 34 THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 15169

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"GARTH TRENT, COWARD."

The words, in staring white capital letters, had been chalked up by some one on the big wooden double-doors that shut the world out from Far End.

Sara stood quite still, gazing at them fixedly, and a tense white-heat of anger flared up within her. Who had dared to put such an insult upon the man she loved?

"Coward!" No one had ever actually applied that term to Garth in her hearing. They had skirted delicately round it, or wrapped up its meaning in some less harsh-sounding tangle of phrases, and although she had bitterly used the word herself, now that the opprobrious expression publicly confronted her, writ large by some unfriendly hand, she was swept by a sheer fury of indignant denial. It roused in her the immediate instinct to defend, to range herself unmistakably on Garth's side against a world of traducers.

With a faint smile of self-mockery, she realized that had this flagrant insult been leveled at him in the beginning, had her first knowledge of the black shadow which hung over him been thus brutally flung at her, instead of diffidently, reluctantly broken to her by Elisabeth, she would probably, with the instinctive partisanship of woman for her mate, have utterly refused to credit it-against all reason and all proof.

She wondered who could have done this ting, nailed this insult to Garth's very door. The illiterate characters stamped it as the work of some one in the lower walks of life, and, with a frown of annoyance, Sara promptly-and quite correctly-ascribed it to Black Brady.

"I never forgits to pay back," he had told her once, belligerently. Probably this was his notion of getting even with the man who had prosecuted him for poaching. But had Brady realized that, in retaliating upon Trent, he would be giving pain to his beloved Sara, whom he had grown to regard with a humble, dog-like devotion, he would certainly have refrained from recording his vengeance upon Garth's gateway.

Surmising that Garth could not have seen the offending legend-or it would scarcely have been left for all who can to read-Sara whipped out her handkerchief and set to work to rub it off. He should not see it if she could help it!

But Black Brady had done his work very thoroughly, and she was still diligently scrubbing at it with an inadequate piece of cambric when she heard steps behind her, and wheeling round, found herself confronted by Garth himself.

His eyes rested indifferently and without surprise upon the chalked-up words, then turned to Sara's face inquiringly.

"Why are you doing that?" he asked. "Is-cleaning gates the latest form of war-work?"

Sara, her face scarlet, answered reluctantly.

"I didn't want you to see it."

A curious expression flashed into his eyes.

"I saw it-two hours ago."

"And you left it there?"-with amazement.

"Why not? It's true, isn't it?"

And in that moment the long struggle in Sara's heart ended, and she answered out of the fullness of the faith that was in her.

"No! It is not true! I've been a fool to believe it for an instant. But I'm one no longer. I don't believe it." She paused, then, very deliberately and steadily, she put her question.

"Garth-tell me, were you ever guilty of cowardice?"

"The court-martial thought so."

Sara's foot tapped impatiently on the ground.

"Please answer my question," she said quickly.

But he remained unmoved.

"Elisabeth Durward has surely supplied you with all the information on that subject which you require," he said in expressionless tones, and Sara was conscious anew of the maddening feeling of impotence with which a contest of wills between herself and Garth never failed to imbue her.

"Garth"-there was appeal in her voice, yet it was still very steady and determined-"I want to know what you say about it. What Elisabeth-or any one else-may say, doesn't matter any longer."

Something in the quiet depth of emotion in her voice momentarily broke through his guard. He made an involuntary movement towards her, then checked himself, and, with an effort, resumed his former detached manner.

"More important than anything either I, or Elisabeth, can say, is the verdict of the court," he answered.

The deadly calm of his voice ripped away her last remnant of composure.

"The verdict of the court!" she burst out. "Damn the verdict of the court!"

"I have done-many a time!"-bitterly.

"Garth," she came a step nearer to him and her sombre eyes blazed into his. "I will have an answer! For God's sake, don't fence with me any longer! . . . There have been misunderstandings enough, reticences enough, between us. For this once, let us be honest with each other. I pretended I didn't care-I pretended I could go on living, believing you to be what-what they have called you. And I can't! . . . I can't go on. . . . I can't bear it any longer. You must answer me! Were you guilty?"

He was white to the lips by the time she had finished, and his eyes held a look of dumb torture. Twice he essayed to answer her, but no sound came.

At last he turned away, as though the passionate question in her face-the eager, hungry longing to hear her faith confirmed-were more than he could bear.

"I cannot deny it." The words came hoarsely, almost whispered.

Her eyes never left his face.

"I didn't ask you to deny it," she persisted doggedly. "I asked you-were you guilty?"

Again there fell as heavy silence. Then, reluctantly, as if the admission were dragged from him, he spoke.

"I'm afraid I can give you no other answer to that question."

A light like the tender, tremulous shining of dawn broke across Sara's face.

"Then you weren't guilty!" she exclaimed, and there was a deep, surpassing joy in her shaken tones. "I knew it! I was sure of it. Oh! Garth, Garth, what a fool I've been! And oh! My dear, why did you do it? Why did you let me go on thinking you-what it almost killed me to think?"

He stared down at her with wondering, uncertain eyes.

"But I've just told you that I can't deny it!"

She smiled at him-a smile of absolute content, with a gleam of humour at the back of it.

"I didn't ask you to deny it. I asked you to own to it; I tried to make you-every way. And you can't!"

"But-"

She laid her hand across his mouth-laughing the tender, triumphant laughter of a woman who has won, and knows that she has.

"You needn't blacken yourself any longer on my account, Garth. I shall never again believe anything that you may say against-the man I love."

She stood leaning a little towards him, surrender in every line of her slender body, and her face was like a white flame-transfigured, radiant with some secret, mystic glory of love's imparting.

With an inarticulate cry he opened wide his arms and she went to him-swiftly, unerringly, like a homing bird-and, as he folded her close against his breast and laid his lips to hers, all the hunger and the longing of the empty past was in his kiss. For the moment, pain and bitterness and regret were swept away in that ecstasy of reunion.

Presently, with a little sigh of spent rapture, she leaned away from him.

"To think we've wasted a whole year," she said regretfully. "Garth, I wish I had trusted you better!" There was a sweet humility of repentance in her tones.

"I don't see why you should trust me now," he rejoined quietly. "The facts remain as before."

"Only that the verdict of the court-martial was wrong," she said swiftly. "There was some horrible mistake. I am sure of it-I know it! Garth!"-after a moment's pause-"are y

ou going to tell me everything? I have the right to know-haven't I?-now that I'm going to be your wife."

She felt the clasp of his arms relax, and, looking up quickly, she saw his face suddenly revert to its old lines of weariness. Slowly, reluctantly, he drew away from her.

"Garth!" There was a shrilling note of apprehension in her voice. "Garth! What is it? Why do you look like that?"

It was a full minute before he answered. When he did, he spoke heavily, as one who knows that his next words will dash all the joy out of life.

"Because," he said quietly, "I can no more tell you anything now than I could before. I can't clear myself, Sara!"

Her eyes were fixed on his.

"Do you mean-you will never be able to?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes, I mean that."

"Answer me one more question, Garth. Is it that you cannot-or will not clear yourself?"

"I must not," he replied steadily. "I am not the only one concerned in the matter. There is some one to whom I owe it to be silent. Honour forbids that I should even try to clear myself. Now you know all-all that I can ever tell you."

"Who is it?" The question leaped from her, and Garth's answer came with an irrevocability of refusal there was no combating.

"That I cannot tell you-or any one."

Sara's mouth twitched. Her face was very white, but her eyes were shining.

"And you have borne this-all these years?" she said. "You have known that you could clear yourself and have refrained?"

"There was no choice," he answered quietly. "I took on a certain liability-years ago, and because it has turned out to be a much heavier liability than I anticipated gives me no excuse for repudiating it now."

For a moment Sara hid her face in her hands. When she uncovered it again there was something almost akin to awe in her eyes.

"Will you ever forgive me, Garth, for doubting you?" she whispered.

"Forgive you?" He smiled. "What else could you have done, sweetheart? I don't know, even now, why you believe in me," he added wonderingly.

"Just because-" she began, and fell silent, realizing that her belief had no reason, but was founded on the intuitive knowledge of a love that has suffered and won out on the other side.

When next she spoke it was with the simple, frank directness characteristic of her.

"Thank God that I can prove that I do trust you-absolutely. When will you marry me, Garth?"

"When will I marry you?" He repeated the words slowly, as though they conveyed no meaning to him.

"Yes. I want every one to know, to see that I believe in you. I want to stand at your side-go shares. Do you remember, once, how we settled that married life meant going shares in everything-good and bad?" She smiled a little at the remembrance drawn from the small store of memories that was all her few days of unclouded love had given her. "I want-my share, Garth."

For a moment he was silent. Then he spoke, and the quiet finality of his tones struck her like a blow.

"We can never marry, Sara."

"Never-marry!" she repeated dazedly. Quick fear seized her, and she rushed on impetuously: "Then you haven't forgiven me, after all-you don't believe that I trust you! Oh! How can I make you know that I do? Garth-"

"Oh, my dear," he interrupted swiftly. "Don't misunderstand me. I know that you believe in me now-and I thank God for it! And as for forgiveness, as I told you, I have nothing to forgive. You'd have had need of the faith that removes mountains"-Sara started at the repetition of Patrick's very words-"to have believed in me under the circumstances." He paused a moment, and when he spoke again there was something triumphant in his tones-a serene gladness and contentment. "You and I, beloved, are right with each other-now and always. Nothing can ever again come between us to divide us as we have been divided this last year. But, none the less," and his voice took on a steadfast note of resolve, "I cannot marry you. I thought I could-I thought the past had sunk into oblivion, and that I might take the gift of love you offered me. . . . But I was wrong."

"No! No! You were not wrong!" She was clinging to him in a sudden terror that even now their happiness was slipping from them. "The past has nothing to say to you and me. It can't come between us. . . . You have only to take me, Garth"-tremulously. "Let me show that my love is stronger than ill repute. Let me come to you and stand by you as your wife. The past can't hurt us, then!"

He shook his head.

"The past never loses its power to hurt," he answered. "I've learned that. As far as the world you belong to is concerned, I'm finished, and I won't drag the woman I love through the same hell I've been through. That's what it would mean, you know. You would be singled out, pointed at, as the wife of a man who was chucked out of the Service. There would be no place in the world for you. You would be ostracized-because you were my wife."

"I shouldn't care," she urged. "Surely I can bear-what you have borne? . . . I shouldn't mind-anything-so long as we were together."

He drew her close to him, his lips against her hair.

"Beloved!" he said, a great wonder in his voice. "Oh! Little brave thing! What have I ever done that you should love me like that?"

Sara winked away a tear, and a rather tremulous smile hovered round her mouth.

"I don't know, I'm sure," she acknowledged a little shakily. "But I do. Garth, you will marry me?"

He lifted his bent head, his eyes gazing straight ahead of him, as though envisioning the lonely future and defying it.

"No," he said resolutely. "No. God helping me, I will never marry you, Sara. I have-no right to marry. It could only bring you misery. Dear, I must shield you, even from yourself-from your own big, generous impulses which would let you join your life to mine. . . . Love is denied to us-denied through my own act of long ago. But if you'll give me friendship. . . ." She could sense the sudden passionate entreaty behind the words. "Sara! Friendship is worth while-such friendship as ours would be! Are you brave enough, strong enough, to give me that-since I may not ask for more?"

There was a long silence, while Sara lay very still against his breast, her face hidden.

In that silence, her spirit met and faced the ultimate issue-for there was that in Garth's voice which told her that his decision not to marry her was immutable. Could she-oh God!-could she give him what he asked? Give only part to the man to whom she longed to give all that a woman has to give? It would be far easier to go away-to put him out of her life for ever.

And yet-he asked this of her! He needed something that she could still give-the comradeship which was all that they two might ever know of love. . . .

When at last she raised her face to his, it was ashen, but her small chin was out-thrust, her eyes were like stars, and the grip of her slim hands on his shoulders was as iron.

"I'm strong enough to give you anything that you want," she said quietly.

She had made the supreme sacrifice; she was ready to be his friend.

A sad and wistful gravity hung about their parting. Their lips met and clung together, but it was in a kiss of renunciation, not of passion.

He held her in his arms a moment longer.

"Never forget I'm loving you-always," he said steadily. "Call me your friend-but remember, in my heart I shall always be your lover."

Her eyes met his, unflinching, infinitely faithful.

"And I-I, too, shall be loving you," she answered, simply. "Always, Garth-always."

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