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   Chapter 38 VINDICATION

The Hermit of Far End By Margaret Pedler Characters: 15914

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Meanwhile, the Herricks and their guests-"Audrey's refugees," as Molly elected to describe the latter, herself included-had gathered round the fire in the library, and were chatting desultorily while they awaited Elisabeth's return from her visit to Tim's sick-room.

The casualties of the previous evening had been found to be augmented by two, since Mrs. Selwyn had remained in bed throughout the day, under the impression that she was suffering from shock, whilst Garth Trent was discovered to have dislocated his shoulder, and had been compelled to keep his room by medical orders.

In endeavouring to shield Tim, as they crashed to the ground together from the tottering staircase, Trent had fallen undermost, receiving the full brunt of the fall; and a dislocated shoulder and a severe shaking, which had left him bruised and sore from head to foot, were the consequences.

Characteristically, he had maintained complete silence about his injury, composedly accompanying Sara back to Greenacres in his car, and he had just been making his way out of the house when he had quietly fainted away on to the floor. After which, the Herricks had taken over command.

"I think," remarked Molly pertinently, "you might as well turn Greenacres into an annexe to the 'Convalescent,' Audrey. You've got four cases already."

The Lavender Lady glanced up smilingly from one of the khaki socks which, in these days, dangled perpetually from her shining needles, and into which she knitted all the love, and pity, and tender prayers of her simple old heart.

"Mr. Trent is better," she announced with satisfaction. "I had tea upstairs with him this afternoon."

"Yes," supplements Selwyn, "I fancy one of your patients has struck, Audrey. Trent intends coming down this evening. Judson has just come back from Far End with some fresh clothes for him."

Audrey turned hastily to her husband.

"Good Heavens, Miles! We can't let him come down! Mrs. Durward will be here with us."

"Well?"-placidly from Herrick.

"Well! It will be anything but well!" retorted Audrey significantly. "Have you forgotten what happened that day in Haven Woods? I'm not going to have Garth hurt like that again! He may have been cashiered a hundred times-I don't care whether he was or not!-he's a man!"

A very charming smile broke over Miles's face.

"I've always known it," he said quietly. "And-I should think Mrs. Durward knows it now."

"Yes. I know it now."

The low, contralto tones that answered were Elisabeth's. Unnoticed, she had entered the room and was standing just outside the little group of people clustered round the hearth-her slim, black-robed figure, with its characteristic little air of stateliness, sharply defined in the ruddy glow of the firelight.

A sudden tremor of emotion seemed to ripple through the room. The atmosphere grew tense, electric-alert as with some premonition of coming storm.

The two men had risen to their feet, but no one spoke, and the brief rustle of movement, as every one turned instinctively towards that slender, sable figure, whispered into blank silence.

To Miles, infinitely compassionate, there seemed something symbolical in the figure of the woman standing there-isolated, outside the friendly circle of the fireside group, standing solitary at the table as a prisoner stands at the bar of judgment.

The firelight, flickering across her face, revealed its pallor and the burning fever of her eyes, and drew strange lights from the heavy chestnut hair that swathed her head like a folded banner of flame.

For a long moment she stood silently regarding the ring of startled faces turned towards her. Then at last she spoke.

"I have something to tell you," she said, addressing herself primarily, it seemed, to Miles.

Perhaps she recognized the compassionate spirit of understanding which was his in so great a measure and appealed to it unconsciously. Selwyn, with sensitive perception, turned as though to leave the room, but she stopped him.

"No, don't go," she said quickly. "Please stay-all of you. I-I wish you all to hear what I have to say." She spoke very composedly, with a curious submissive dignity, as though she had schooled herself to meet this moment. "It concerns Garth Trent-at least, that is the name by which you know him. His real name is Maurice-Maurice Kennedy, and he is my cousin, Lord Grisdale's younger son. He has lived here under an assumed name because-because"-her voice trembled a little, then steadied again to its accustomed even quality-"because I ruined his life. . . . The only way in which I can make amends is by telling you the true facts of the Indian Frontier episode which led to Maurice's dismissal from the Army. He-ought never to have been-cashiered for cowardice."

She paused, and with a sudden instinctive movement Sara grasped Selwyn's arm, while the sharp sibilance of her quick-drawn breath cut across the momentary silence.

"No," Elisabeth repeated. "Maurice ought never to have been cashiered. He was absolutely innocent of the charge against him. The real offender was Geoffrey . . . my husband. It was he-Geoffrey, not Maurice-who was sent out in charge of the reconnaissance party from the fort-and it was he whose nerve gave way when surprised by the enemy. Maurice kept his head and tried to steady him, but, at the time, Geoffrey must have been mad-caught by sudden panic, together with his men. Don't judge him too hardly"-her voice took on a note of pleading-"you must remember that he had been enduring days and nights of frightful strain, and that the attack came without any warning . . . in the darkness. He had no time to think-to pull himself together. And he lost his head. . . . Maurice did his best to save the situation. Realizing that for the moment Geoffrey was hardly accountable, he deliberately shot him in the leg, to incapacitate him, and took command himself, trying to rally the men. But they stampeded past him, panic-stricken, and it was while he was storming at them to turn round and put up a fight that-that he was shot in the back." She faltered, meeting the measureless reproach in Sara's eyes, and strickenly aware of the hateful interpretation she had put upon the same incident when describing it to her on a former occasion.

For the first time, she seemed to lose her composure, rocking a little where she stood and supporting herself by gripping the edge of the table with straining fingers.

But no one stirred. In poignant silence they awaited the continuance of the tale which each one sensed to be developing towards a climax of inevitable calamity.

"Afterwards," pursued Elisabeth at last, "at the court-martial, two of the men gave evidence that they had seen Geoffrey fall wounded at the beginning of the skirmish-they did not know that it was Maurice who had disabled him intentionally-so that he was completely exonerated from all blame, and the Court came to the conclusion that, the command having thus fallen to Maurice, he had lost his nerve and been guilty of cowardice in face of the enemy. Geoffrey himself knew nothing of the actual facts-either then or later. He had gone down like a log when Maurice shot him, striking his head as he fell, and concussion of the brain wiped out of his mind all recollection of what had occurred in the fight prior to his fall. The last thing he remembered was mustering his men together in readiness to leave the fort. Everything else was a blank."

Out of the shadows of the fire-lit room came a muttered question.

"Yes." Elisabeth bent her head in answer. "There was-other evidence forthcoming. But not then, not at the time of the trial. Then Maurice was dismissed from the Army."

She seemed to speak with ever-increasing difficulty, and her hand went up suddenly to her throat. It was obvious that this self-imposed disclosure of the truth was taking her strength to its uttermost limit.

"I had better te

ll you the whole story-from the beginning," she said, at last, haltingly, and, after a moment's hesitation, she resumed in the hard, expressionless voice of intense effort.

"Before Maurice went out to India, he and I were engaged to be married. On my part, it would have been only a marriage of convenience, for I was not in love with him, although I had always been fond of him in a cousinly way. There was another man whom I loved-the man I afterwards married, Geoffrey Lovell-" for an instant her eyes glowed with a sudden radiance of remembrance-"and he and I became secretly engaged, in spite of the fact that I had already promised to marry Maurice. I expect you think that was unforgivable of me," she seemed to search the intent faces of her little audience as though challenging the verdict she might read therein; "but there was some excuse. I was very young, and at the time I promised myself to Maurice I did not know that Geoffrey cared for me. And then-when I knew-I hadn't the courage to break with Maurice. He and Geoffrey were both going out to India-they were in the same regiment-and I kept hoping that something might happen which would make it easier for me. Maurice might meet and be attracted by some other woman. . . . I hoped he would."

She fell silent for a moment, then, gathering her remaining strength together, as it seemed, she went on relentlessly-

"Something did happen. Maurice was cashiered from the Army, and I had a legitimate reason for terminating the engagement between us. . . . Then, just as I thought I was free, he came to tell me his case would be reopened; there was an eye-witness who could prove his innocence, a private in his own regiment. I never knew who the man was"-she turned slightly at the sound of a sudden brusque movement from Miles Herrick, then, as he volunteered no remark, continued-"but it appeared he had been badly wounded and had only learned the verdict of the court-martial after his recovery. He had then written to Maurice, telling him that he was in a position to prove that it was not he, but Geoffrey Lovell who had been guilty of cowardice. When I understood this, and realized what it must mean, I confessed to Maurice that Geoffrey was the man I loved, and I begged and implored him to take the blame-to let the verdict of the court-marital stand. It was a horrible thing to do-I know that . . . but think what it meant to me! It meant the honour and welfare of the man I loved, as opposed to the honour and welfare of a man for whom I cared comparatively little. Maurice was not easy to move, but I made him understand that, whatever happened now, I should never marry him-that I should sink or swim with Geoffrey, and at last he consented to do the thing I asked. He accepted the blame and went away-to the Colonies, I believe. Afterwards, as you all know, he returned to England and lived at Far End under the name of Garth Trent."

Such was the tale Elisabeth unfolded, and the hushed listeners, keyed up by its tragic drama, could visualize for themselves the scene of that last piteous interview between Elisabeth and the man who had loved her to his own utter undoing.

She was still a very lovely woman, and it was easy to realize how well-nigh bewilderingly beautiful she must have been in her youth, easy to imagine how Garth-or Maurice Kennedy, as he must henceforth be recognized-worshipping her with a boy's headlong passion, had agreed to let the judgment of the Court remain unchallenged and to shoulder the burden of another man's sin.

Probably he felt that, since he had lost her, nothing else mattered, and, with the reckless chivalry of youth, he never stopped to count the cost. He only knew that the woman he loved, whose beauty pierced him to the very soul, so that his vision was blurred by the sheer loveliness of her, demanded her happiness at his hands and that he must give it to her.

"I suppose you think there was no excuse for what I did," Elisabeth concluded, with something of appeal in her voice. "But I did not realize, then, quite all that I was taking from Maurice. I think that much must be granted me. . . . But I make no excuse for what I did afterwards. There is none. I did it deliberately. Maurice had won the woman Tim wanted, and I hoped that if he were utterly discredited, Sara would refuse to marry him, and thus the way would be open to Tim. So I made public the story of the court-martial which had sentenced Maurice. Had it not been for that, I should have held my peace for ever about his having been cashiered. I-I owed him that much." She was silent a moment. Presently she raised her head and spoke in harsh, wrung accents. "But I've been punished! God saw to that. What do you think it has meant to me to know that my husband-the man I worshipped-had been once a coward? It's true the world never knew it . . . but I knew it."

The agony of pride wounded in its most sacred place, the suffering of love that despises what it loves, yet cannot cease from loving, rang in her voice, and her haunted eyes-the eyes which had guarded their secret so invincibly-seemed to plead for comfort, for understanding.

It was Miles who answered that unspoken supplication.

"I think you need never feel shame again," he said very gently. "Major Durward's splendid death has more than wiped out that one mistake of his youth. Thank God he never knew it needed wiping out."

A momentary tranquility came into Elisabeth's face.

"No," she answered simply. "No, he never knew." Then the tide of bitter recollection surged over her once more, and she continued passionately: "Oh yes, I've been punished! Day and night, day and night since the war began, I've lived in terror that the fear-his father's fear-might suddenly grip Tim out there in Flanders. I kept him out of the Army-because I was afraid. And then the war came, and he had to go. Thank God-oh, thank God!-he never failed! . . . I suppose I am a bad woman-I don't know . . . I fought for my own love and happiness first, and afterwards for my son's. But, at least, I'm not bad enough to let Maurice go on bearing . . . what he has borne . . . now that he has saved Tim's life. He has given me the only thing . . . left to me . . . of value in the whole world. In return, I can give him the one thing that matters to him-his good name. Henceforth Maurice is a free man."

"What are you saying?"

The sharp, staccato question cut across Elisabeth's quiet, concentrated speech like a rapier thrust, snapping the strained attention of her listeners, who turned, with one accord, to see Kennedy himself standing at the threshold of the room, his eyes fastened on Elisabeth's face.

She met his glance composedly; on her lips a queer little smile which held an indefinable pathos and appeal.

"I am telling them the truth-at last, Maurice," she said calmly. "I have told them the true story of the court-martial."

"You-you have told them that?" he stammered. He was very pale. The sudden realization of all that her words implied seemed to overwhelm him.

"Yes." She rose and moved quietly to the door, then face to face with Kennedy, she halted. Her eyes rested levelly on his; in her bearing there was something aloofly proud-an undiminished stateliness, almost regal in its calm inviolability. "They know-now-all that I took from you. I shall not ask your forgiveness, Maurice . . . I don't expect it. I sinned for my husband and my son-that is my only justification. I would do the same again."

Instinctively Maurice stood aside as she swept past him, her head unbowed, splendid even in her moment of surrender-almost, it seemed, unbeaten to the last.

For a moment there was a silence-palpitant, packed with conflicting emotion.

Then, with a little choking sob, Sara ran across the room to Maurice and caught his hands in hers, smiling whilst the tears streamed down her cheeks.

"Oh, my dear!" she cried brokenly. "Oh, my dear!"

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