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   Chapter 35 OUT OF THE NIGHT

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 10798

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Tim was home on sick leave, and, after two perfect weeks of reunion, Elisabeth had written to ask if he might come down to Sunnyside, suggesting that the sea-breezes might advance his convalescence.

"I wonder Mrs. Durward cares to spare him," commented Selwyn in some surprise. "It seems out of keeping with her general attitude. However, we shall be delighted to have him here. Write and say so, will you, Sara?"

Sara acquiesced briefly, flushing a little. She thought she could read the motive at the back of Elisabeth's proposal-the spirit which, putting up a gallant fight even in the very face of defeat, could make yet a final effort to secure success by throwing Tim and the woman he loved together in the dangerously seductive intimacy of the same household.

But Sara had no fear that Tim would avail himself of the opportunity thus provided in the way Elisabeth doubtless hoped he might. That matter had been finally settled between herself and him before he went to France, and she knew that he would never again ask her to be his wife. So she wrote to him serenely, telling him to come down to Monkshaven as soon as he liked; and a few days later found him installed at Sunnyside, nominally under Dr. Selwyn's care.

He was the same unaffected, spontaneous Tim as of yore, and hugely embarrassed by any reference to his winning of the Military Cross, firmly refusing to discuss the manner of it, even with Sara.

"I just got on with my job-like dozens of other fellows," was all he would say.

It was from a brother officer that Sara learned, later, than Tim had "got on with his job" under a hellish enemy fire, in spite of being twice wounded; and had thus saved the immediate situation in his vicinity-and, incidentally, the lives of many of his comrades.

He seemed to Sara to have become at once both older and younger than in former days. He had all the hilarious good spirits evinced by nine out of ten of the boys who came home on leave-the cheery capacity to laugh at the hardships and dangers of the front, to poke good-natured fun at "old Fritz" and to make a jest of the German shells and the Flanders mud, treating the whole great adventure of war as though it were the finest game invented.

Yet back of the mirth and laughter in the blue eyes lurked something new and strange and grave-inexpressibly touching-that indefinable something which one senses shrinkingly in the young eyes of the boys who have come back.

It hurt Sara somehow-that look of which she caught glimpses now and then, in quiet moments, and she set herself to drive it away, or, at least, to keep it at bay as much as possible, by filling every available moment with occupation or amusement.

"I don't want him to think about what it was like-out there," she told Molly. "His eyes make my heart ache, sometimes. They're too young to have seen-such things. Suggest something we can play at to-day!"

So they threw themselves, heart and soul, into the task of entertaining Tim, and, since he was very willing to be entertained, the weeks at Sunnyside slipped by in a little whirl of gaiety, winding up with a badminton tournament, at which Tim-whose right arm had not yet quite recovered from the effects of the German bullet it had stopped-played a left-handed game, and triumphantly maneuvered himself and his partner into the semi-finals.

Probably-leniently handicapped, as they were, in the circumstances-they would have won the tournament, but that, unluckily, in leaping to reach a shuttle soaring high above his head, Tim somehow missed his footing and came down heavily, with his leg twisted underneath him.

"Broken ankle," announced Selwyn briefly, when he had made his examination.

Tim opened his eyes-he had lost consciousness, momentarily, from the pain.

"Damn!" he observed succinctly. "That'll make it the very devil of a time before I can get back to France!" Then, to Sara, who could be heard murmuring something about writing to Elisabeth: "Not much, old thing, you don't! She'd fuss herself, no end. Just write-and say-it's a sprain." And he promptly fainted again.

They got him back to Sunnyside while he was still unconscious, and when he returned to an intelligent understanding of material matters, he found himself in bed, with a hump-like excrescence in front of him keeping the weight of the bedclothes from the injured limb.

"Did I faint?" he asked morosely.

"Yes. Lucky you did, too," responded Sara cheerfully. "Doctor Dick rigged your ankle up all nice and comfy without your being any the wiser."

"Fainted-like a girl-over a broken ankle, my hat!"-with immense scorn.

Sara was hard put to it not to laugh outright at his face of disgust.

"You might remember that you're not strong yet," she suggested soothingly.

They talked for a little, and presently Tim, whose eyelids had been blinking somnolently for some time, gave vent to an unmistakable yawn.

"I'm-I'm confoundedly sleepy," he murmured apologetically.

"Then go to sleep," came promptly from Sara. "It's quite the best thing you can do. I'll run off and write a judicious letter to Elisabeth-about your sprain"-smiling.

With a glance round to see that he had candle, matches, and a hand-bell within reach, she turned out the lamp and slipped quietly away. Tim was asleep almost before she had quitted the room.

It was several hours later when Sar

a sat up in bed, broad awake, in response to the vigorous shaking that some one was administering to her.

She opened her eyes to the yellow glare of a candle. Behind the glare materialized a vision of Jane Crab, attired in a red flannel dressing-gown, and with her hair tightly strained into four skimpy plaits which stuck out horizontally from her head like the surviving rays of a badly damaged halo.

"Miss Sara! Miss Sara!" She apostrophized the rudely awakened sleeper in a sibilant whisper, as though afraid of being overheard. "Get up, quick! They 'Uns is 'ere!"

"Who is here?" exclaimed Sara, somewhat startled.

"The Zepps, miss-the Zepps! The guns are firing off every minute or two. There!"-as the blurred thunder of anti-aircraft guns boomed in the distance. "There they go again!"

Sara leaped out of bed in an instant, hastily pulling on a fascinating silk kimono and thrusting her bare feet into a pair of scarlet Turkish slippers.

"One may as well die tidy," she reflected philosophically. Then, turning to Jane-

"Where's the doctor?" she demanded.

"Trying to get the mistress downstairs. She's that scared, she won't budge from her bed."

Sara giggled-Jane's face was very expressive.

"Well, I'm going into Mr. Durward's room," she announced. "We shall see better there."

Jane's little beady eyes glittered.

"Aye, I'd like to see them at their devil's work," she allowed fondly, with a threatening "Just-let-me-catch-them-at-it!" intonation in her voice.

Sara laughed, and they both repaired to Tim's room, encountering Molly on the way and sweeping her along in their train. They found Tim volubly cursing his inability to get up and "watch the fun."

"Look out and tell me if you can see the blighters," he commanded.

As Sara threw open the window, a dull, thudding sound came up to them from the direction of Oldhampton. There was a sullen menace in the distance-dulled reverberation.

Molly gurgled with the nervous excitement of a first experience under fire.

"That's a bomb!" she whispered breathlessly.

She, and Sara, and Jane Crab wedged themselves together in the open window and leaned far out, peering into the moonless dark. As they watched, a search-light leapt into being, and a pencil of light moved flickeringly across the sky. Then another and another-sweeping hither and thither like the blind feelers of some hidden octopus seeking its prey. There was something horribly uncanny in those long, straight shafts of light wavering uncertainly across the dense darkness of the night sky.

"Can you see the Zepp?" demanded Tim, with lively interest, from his bed.

"No, it's pitch black-too dark to see a thing," replied Sara.

Exactly as she spoke, a brilliant light hung for a moment suspended in the dark arch of the sky, then shivered into a blaze of garish effulgence, girdling the countryside and illuminating every road and building, every field, and tree, and ditch, as brightly as though it were broad daylight.

"A star-shell!" gasped Molly. "What a beastly thing! Positively"-giggling nervously-"I believe they can see right inside this room!"

"'Tisn't decent!" fulminated Jane indignantly, clutching with modest fingers at her scanty dressing-gown and straining it tightly across her chest whilst she backed hastily from the vicinity of the window. "Lightin' up sudden like that in the middle of the night! I feel for all the world as though I hadn't got a stitch on me! Come away from the window, do, miss--"

The light failed as suddenly as it had flared, and a warning crash, throbbing up against their ears, startled her into silence.

"That's a trifle too near to be pleasant," exclaimed Tim sharply. "Go downstairs, you three! Do you hear?"

Simultaneously, Selwyn shouted from below-

"Come downstairs! Come down at once! Quick, Sara! I'm coming up to carry Tim down-and Minnie won't stay alone. Come on!"

Obedient to something urgent and imperative in the voices of both men-something that breathed of danger-the three women hastened from the room. Jane's candle flared and went out in the draught from the suddenly opened door, and in the smothering darkness they stumbled pell-mell down the stairs.

A dim light burning in the hall showed them Mrs. Selwyn cowering against her husband, her face hidden, sobbing hysterically, and in a moment Sara had taken Dick's place, wrapping her strong arms about the shuddering woman.

"Go on!" she whispered to him. "Go and get Tim down!"

He nodded, releasing himself with gentle force from his wife's clinging fingers, which had closed upon his arm like a vise.

Immediately she lifted up her voice in a thin, querulous shriek-

"No! Dick, Dick-don't leave me! Dick"-

. . . And then it came-sped from that hovering Hate which hung above-dropping soundlessly, implacable through the utter darkness of the night and crashing into devilish life against a corner of the house.

Followed by a terrible flash and roar-a chaos of unimaginable sound. It seemed as though the whole world had split into fragments and were rocketing off into space; and, in quick succession, came the rumble of falling beams and masonry, and the dense dust of disintegrated plaster mingling with the fumes of high explosive.

Sara was conscious of being shot violently across the hall, and then everything went out in illimitable black darkness.

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