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   Chapter 36 “FROM SUDDEN DEATH——”

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 10239

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"Sara! Sara! For God's sake, open your eyes!"

The anguished tones pierced through the black curtain which had suddenly cut away the outer world from Sara's consciousness, and she opened her eyes obediently, to find herself looking straight into Garth's face bent above her-a sickly white in the yellow glare of the hurricane lamp he was holding.

"Are you hurt?" His voice came again insistently, sharp with hideous fear.

She sat up, breathing rather fast.

"No," she said, as though surprised. "I'm not hurt-not the least bit."

With Garth's help, she struggled to her feet and stood upright-rather shakily, it is true, but still able to accomplish the feat without much difficulty. She began to laugh weakly-a little helplessly.

"I think-I think I've only had my wind knocked out," she said. Then, as gradually the comprehension of events returned to her: "The others? Who's hurt? Oh, Garth! Is any one-killed?"

"No, no one, thank God!" He reassured her hastily. His arm went round her, and for a moment their lips met in a silent passion of thanksgiving.

"But you-how did you come here?" she asked, as they drew apart once more. "You . . . weren't . . . here?"-her brows contracting in a puzzled frown as she endeavoured to recall the incidents immediately preceding the bombing of the house. "We'd-we'd just gone to bed."

"I was dining with the Herricks. The raid began just as I was leaving them, so Judson and I drove straight on here instead of going home."

Sara pressed his hand.

"Bless you, dear!" she whispered quickly. Then, recollection returning more completely: "Tim? Is Tim safe?"

"Tim?"-sharply.

"He was upstairs. Where is Doctor Dick? Did he-"

"I'm not far off," came Selwyn's voice, from the mouth of a dark cavity that had once been the study doorway. "Come over here-but step carefully. The floor's strewn with stuff."

Garth piloted Sara skillfully across the debris that littered the floor, and they joined the group of shadowy figures huddled together in the doorless study.

"'Ware my arm!" warned Selwyn, as they approached. "It's broken, confound it!" He seemed, for the moment, oblivious of the pain.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Selwyn, finding herself physically intact, was keeping up an irritating moaning, interspersed with pettish diatribes against a Government that could be so culpably careless as to permit her to be bombed out of house and home; whilst Jane Crab, who had found and lit a candle, and recklessly stuck it to the table in its own grease, was bluffly endeavouring to console her.

For once Selwyn's saint-like patience failed him.

"Oh, shut up whining, Minnie!" he exclaimed forcefully. "It would be more to the point if you got down on your knees and said thank you to some one or something instead of grousing like that!"

He turned hurriedly to Garth, who was flashing his lantern hither and thither, locating the damage done.

"Look here," he said. "Young Durward's upstairs. We must get him down."

"Where does he sleep? One side of the house is staved in."

"He's not that side, thank Heaven! But the odds are he's badly hurt. And, anyway, he's helpless. I was just going up to carry him down when that damned bomb got us."

Garth swung out into the hall and sent a ringing shout up through the house. An instant later Tim's answer floated down to them.

"All serene! Can't move!"

Again Garth sent his voice pealing upwards-

"Hold on! We'll be with you in a minute."

He turned to Selwyn.

"I'll go up," he said. "You can't do anything with that arm of yours."

"I can help," maintained Dick stoutly.

Garth shook his head.

"No. If you slipped amongst the mess there'll be up there, I'd have two cripples on my hands instead of one. You stay here and look after the women-and get one of them to fix you up a temporary splint."

The two men moved forward, the women pressing eagerly behind them; then, as the light from Garth's lantern steamed ahead there came an instantaneous outcry of dismay.

The whole stairway was twisted and askew. It had a ludicrously drunken look, as though it were lolling up against the wall-like a staircase in a picture of which the perspective is all wrong.

"It isn't safe!" exclaimed Selwyn quickly. "You can't go up. We shall have to wait till help comes."

"I'm going up-now," said Garth quietly.

"But it isn't safe, man! Those stairs won't bear you!"

"They'll have to"-laconically. "That top story may go at any minute. It would collapse like a pack of cards if another bomb fell near enough for us to feel the concussion. And young Durward would have about as much chance as a rat in a trap."

A silence descended on the little group of anxious people as he finished speaking. The gravity of Tim's position suddenly revealed itself-and the danger involved by an attempt at rescue.

Sara drew close to Garth's side.

"Must you go, Garth?" she asked. "Wouldn't it be safe to wait till help comes?"

"Tim isn't safe there, actually five minutes. The floors may hold-or they mayn't! I must go, sweet."

She caught his hand and held it an ins

tant against her cheek. Then-

"Go, dear," she whispered. "Go quickly. And oh!-God keep you!"

He was gone, picking his way gingerly, treading as lightly as a cat, so that the wrenched stairway hardly creaked beneath his swift, lithe steps.

Once there came the sudden rattle of some falling scrap of broken plaster, and Sara, leaning with closed eyes and white, set face, against the framework of a doorway, shivered soundlessly.

Soon he had disappeared round the distorted head of the staircase, and those who were watching could only discern the bobbing glimmer of the light he carried mounting higher and higher.

Then-after an interminable time, it seemed-there came the sound of voices . . . he had found Tim . . . a pause . . . then again a short, quick speech and the word "Right?" drifted faintly down to the strained ears below.

Unconsciously Sara's hands had clenched themselves, and the nails were biting into the flesh of her palms. But she felt no pain. Her whole being seemed concentrated into the single sense of hearing as she waited there in the candle-lit gloom, listening for every tiny sound, each creak of a board, each scattering of loosened plaster, which might herald danger.

Another eternity crawled by before, at length, Garth reappeared once more round the last bend of the staircase. Tim was lying across his shoulder, his injured leg hanging stiffly down, and in his hand he grasped the lantern, while both Garth's arms supported him.

Sara's eyes had opened now and fixed themselves intently on the burdened figure of the man she loved, as, with infinite caution, he began the descent of the last flight of stairs.

There was a double strain now upon the dislocated boards and joists-the weight of two men where one had climbed before with lithe, light, unimpeded limbs-and it seemed to Sara's tense, set vision as if a slight tremor ran throughout the whole stairway.

In an agony of terror she watched Garth's steady, downward progress. She felt as though she must scream out to him to hurry-hurry! Yet she bit back the scream lest it should startle him, every muscle of her body rigid with the effort that her silence cost her.

Seven stairs more! Six!

Sara's lips were moving voicelessly. She was whispering rapidly over and over again-

"God! God! God! Keep him safe! . . . You can do it. . . . Don't let him fall. . . ."

Five! Only five steps more!

"Hold up the stairs! . . . God! Don't let them give way! . . . Don't--"

Again there came the familiar thudding sound of an explosion. Somewhere another bomb, hurled from the cavernous dark that hid the enemy, had fallen, and almost simultaneously, it seemed, a warning thunder rumbled overhead like the menacing growl of a wild beast suddenly let loose.

At the first low mutter of that threat of imminent disaster, Garth sprang.

Gripping Tim firmly in his arms, he leaped from the quaking staircase, falling awkwardly, prone beneath the burden of the other's helpless body, as he landed.

And even as he reached the ground, the upper story of the house, with a roar that shook the whole remaining fabric of the building, crashed to earth in an avalanche of stone and brick and flying slates, whilst the stairway upon which he had been standing gave a sickening lurch, rocked, and fell out sideways into the hall in a smother of dust and plaster.

Stumblingly, those who had been watching groped their way through the powdery cloud, as it swirled and eddied, towards the dark blotch at the foot of the stairs which was all that could be distinguished of Trent and his burden.

To Sara, the momentary silence that ensued was in infinity of nameless dread. Then-

"We're all right," gasped Trent reassuringly, and choked violently as he inhaled a mouthful of grit-laden air.

In the same instant, across the murk shot a broad beam of light from the open doorway. Behind it Sara could discern white faces peering anxiously-Audrey's and Miles's, and, behind them again, loomed the heads and shoulders of others who had hurried to the scene of the catastrophe.

Then Herrick's voice rang out, high-pitched with gathering apprehension.

"Are you all safe?"

And when the reassuring answer reached the little throng upon the threshold, a murmur of relief went up, culminating in a ringing cheer as the news percolated through to the crowd which had collected in the roadway.

In an amazingly short time, so it seemed to Sara, she found herself comfortably tucked into the back seat of Garth's car, between him and Molly. Judson, with Jane beside him, took the wheel, and they were soon speeding swiftly away towards Greenacres, where Audrey had insisted that the homeless household must take refuge-the remainder of the party following in the Herricks' limousine.

It had been a night of adventure, but it was over at last, and, as Jane Crab remarked with stolid conviction-

"The doctor-blessed saint!-was never intended to be killed by one of they 'Uns, so they might as well have saved theirselves the trouble of trying it-and we'd all have slept the easier in our beds!"

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