THE HERMIT OF FAR END
By Margaret Pedler
First Published 1920.
It was very quiet within the little room perched high up under the roof of Wallater's Buildings. Even the glowing logs in the grate burned tranquilly, without any of those brisk cracklings and sputterings which make such cheerful company of a fire, while the distant roar of London's traffic came murmuringly, dulled to a gentle monotone by the honeycomb of narrow side streets that intervened between the gaunt, red-brick Buildings and the bustling highways of the city.
It seemed almost as though the little room were waiting for something—some one, just as the woman seated in the low chair at the hearthside was waiting.
She sat very still, looking towards the door, her folded hands lying quietly on her knees in an attitude of patient expectancy. It was as if, although she found the waiting long and wearisome, she were yet quite sure she would not have to wait in vain.
Once she bent forward and touched the little finger of her left hand, which bore, at its base, a slight circular depression such as comes from the constant wearing of a ring. She rubbed it softly with the forefinger of the other hand.
"He will come," she muttered. "He promised he would come if ever I sent the little pearl ring."
Then she leaned back once more, resuming her former attitude of patient waiting, and the insistent silence, momentarily broken by her movement, settled down again upon the room.
Presently the long rays of the westering sun crept round the edge of some projecting eaves and, slanting in suddenly through the window, rested upon the quiet figure in the chair.
Even in their clear, revealing light it would have been difficult to decide the woman's age, so worn and lined was the mask-like face outlined against the shabby cushion. She looked forty, yet there was something still girlish in the pose of her black-clad figure which seemed to suggest a shorter tale of years. Raven dark hair, lustreless and dull, framed a pale, emaciated face from which ill-health had stripped almost all that had once been beautiful. Only the immense dark eyes, feverishly bright beneath the sunken temples, and the still lovely line from jaw to pointed chin, remained unmarred, their beauty mocked by the pinched nostrils and drawn mouth, and by the scraggy, almost fleshless throat.
It might have been the face of a dead woman, so still, so waxen was it, were it not for the eager brilliance of the eyes. In them, fixed watchfully upon the closed door, was concentrated the whole vitality of the failing body.
Beyond that door, flight upon flight of some steps dropped seemingly endlessly one below the other, leading at last to a cement-floored vestibule, cheerless and uninviting, which opened on to the street.
Perhaps there was no particular reason why the vestibule should have been other than it was, seeing that Wallater's Buildings had not been designed for the habitual loiterer. For such as he there remains always the "luxurious entrance-hall" of hotel advertisement.
As far as the inhabitants of "Wallater's" were concerned, they clattered over the cement flooring of the vestibule in the mornings, on their way to work, without pausing to cast an eye of criticism upon its general aspect of uncomeliness, and dragged tired feet across it in an evening with no other thought but that of how many weary steps there were to climb before the room which served as "home" should be attained.
But to the well-dressed, middle-aged man who now paused, half in doubt, on the threshold of the Buildings, the sordid-looking vestibule, with its bare floor and drab-coloured walls, presented an epitome of desolation.
His keen blue eyes, in one of which was stuck a monocle attached to a broad black ribbon, rested appraisingly upon the ascending spiral of the stone stairway that vanished into the gloomy upper reaches of the Building.
Against this chill background there suddenly took shape in his mind the picture of a spacious room, fragrant with the scent of roses—a room full of mellow tints of brown and gold, athwart which the afternoon sunlight lingered tenderly, picking out here the limpid blue of a bit of old Chinese "blue-and-white," there the warm gleam of polished copper, or here again the bizarre, gem-encrusted image of an Eastern god. All that was rare and beautiful had gone to the making of the room, and rarer and more beautiful than all, in the eyes of the man whose memory now recalled it, had been the woman to whom it had belonged, whose loveliness had glowed within it like a jewel in a rich setting.
With a mental jolt his thoughts came back to the present, to the bare, commonplace ugliness of Wallater's Buildings.
"My God!" he muttered. "Pauline—here!"
Then with swift steps he began the ascent of the stone steps, gradually slackening in pace until, when he reached the summit and stood facing that door behind which a woman watched and waited, he had perforce to pause to regain his breath, whilst certain twinges in his right knee reminded him that he was no longer as young as he had been.
In answer to his knock a low voice bade him enter, and a minute later he was standing in the quiet little room, his eyes gazing levelly into the feverish dark ones of the woman who had risen at his entrance.
"So!" she said, while an odd smile twisted her bloodless lips. "You have come, after all. Sometimes—I began to doubt if you would. It is days—an eternity since I sent for you."
"I have been away," he replied simply. "And my mail was not forwarded. I came directly I received the ring—at once, as I told you I should."
"Well, sit down and let us talk"—impatiently—"it doesn't matter—nothing matters since you have come in time."
"In time? What do you mean? In time for what? Pauline, tell me"—advancing a step—"tell me, in God's Name, what are you doing in this place?" He glanced significantly round the shabby room with its threadbare carpet and distempered walls.
"I'm living here—"
"Living here? You?"
"Yes. Why not? Soon"—indifferently—"I shall be dying here. It is, at least, as good a place to die in as any other."
"Dying?" The man's pleasant baritone voice suddenly shook. "Dying? Oh, no, no! You've been ill—I can see that—but with care and good nursing—"
"Don't deceive yourself, my friend," she interrupted him remorselessly. "See, come to the window. Now look at me—and then don't talk any more twaddle about care and good nursing!"
She had drawn him towards the window, till they were standing together in the full blaze of the setting sun. Then she turned and faced him—a gaunt wreck of splendid womanhood, her fingers working nervously, whilst her too brilliant eyes, burning in their grey, sunken, sockets, searched his face curiously.
"You've worn better than I have," she observed at last, breaking the silence with a short laugh, "you must be—let me see—fifty. While I'm barely thirty-one—and I look forty—and the rest."
Suddenly he reached out and gathered her thin, restless hands into his, holding them in a kind, firm clasp.
"Oh, my dear!" he said sadly. "Is there nothing I can do?"
"Yes," she answered steadily. "There is. And it's to ask you if you will do it that I sent for you. Do you suppose"—she swallowed, battling with the tremor in her voice—"that I wanted you to see me—as I am now? It was months—months before I could bring myself to send you the little pearl ring."
He stooped and kissed one of the hands he held.
"Dear, foolish woman! You would always be—just Pauline—to me."
Her eyes softened suddenly.
"So you never married, after all?"
He straightened his shoulders, meeting her glance squarely—almost sternly.
"Did you imagine that I should?" he asked quietly.
"No, no, I suppose not." She looked away. "What a mess I made of things, didn't I? However, it's all past now; the game's nearly over, thank Heaven! Life, since that day"—the eyes of the man and woman met again in swift understanding—"has been one long hell."
"He—the man you married—"
"Made that hell. I left him after six years of it, taking the child with me."
"The child?" A curious expression came into his eyes, resentful, yet tinged at the same time with an oddly tender interest. "Was there a child?"
"Yes—I have a little daughter."
"And did your husband never trace you?" he asked, after a pause.
"He never tried to"—grimly. "Afterwards—well, it was downhill all the way. I didn't know how to work, and by that time I had learned my health was going. Since then, I've lived on the proceeds of the pawnshop—I had my jewels, you know—and on the odd bits of money I could scrape together by taking in sewing."
A groan burst from the man's dry lips.
"Oh, my God!" he cried. "Pauline, Pauline, it was cruel of you to keep me in ignorance! I could at least have helped."
She shook her head.
"I couldn't take—your money," she said quietly. "I was too proud for that. But, dear friend"—as she saw him wince—"I'm not proud any longer. I think Death very soon shows us how little—pride—matters; it falls into its right perspective when one is nearing the end of things. I'm so little proud now that I've sent for you to ask your help."
"Anything—anything!" he said eagerly.
"It's rather a big thing that I'm going to ask, I'm afraid. I want you," she spoke slowly, as though to focus his attention, "to take care of my child—when I am gone."
He stared at her doubtfully.
"But her father? Will he consent?" he asked.
"He is dead. I received the news of his death six months ago. There is no one—no one who has any claim upon her. And no one upon whom she has any claim, poor little atom!"—smiling rather bitterly. "Ah! Don't deny me!"—her thin, eager hands clung to his—"don't deny me—say that you'll take her!"
"Deny you? But, of course I shan't deny you. I'm only thankful that you have turned to me at last—that you have not quite forgotten!"
"Forgotten?" Her voice vibrated. "Believe me or not, as you will, there has never been a day for nine long years when I have not remembered—never a night when I have not prayed God to bless you——" She broke off, her mouth working uncontrollably.
Very quietly, very tenderly, he drew her into his arms. There was no passion in the caress—for was it not eventide, and the lengthening shadows of night already fallen across her path?—but there was infinite love, and forgiveness, and understanding. . . .
"And now, may I see her—the little daughter?"
The twilight had gathered about them during that quiet hour of reunion, wherein old hurts had been healed, old sins forgiven, and now at last they had come back together out of the past to the recognition of all that yet remained to do.
There came a sound of running footsteps on the stairs outside—light, eager steps, buoyant with youth, that evidently found no hardship in the long ascent from the street level.
"Hark!" The woman paused, her head a little turned to listen. "Here she comes. No one else on this floor"—with a whimsical smile—"could take the last flight of those awful stairs at a run."
The door flew open, and the man received an impressionist picture of which the salient features were a mop of black hair, a scarlet jersey, and a pair of abnormally long black legs.
Then the door closed with a bang, and the blur of black and scarlet resolved itself into a thin, eager-faced child of eight, who paused irresolutely upon perceiving a stranger in the room.
"Come here, kiddy," the woman held out her hand. "This"—and her eyes sought those of the man as though beseeching confirmation—"is your uncle."
The child advanced and shook hands politely, then stood still, staring at this unexpectedly acquired relative.
Her sharp-pointed face was so thin and small that her eyes, beneath their straight, dark brows, seemed to be enormous—black, sombre eyes, having no kinship with the intense, opaque brown so frequently miscalled black, but suggestive of the vibrating darkness of night itself.
Instinctively the man's glance wandered to the face of the child's mother.
"You think her like me?" she hazarded.
"She is very like you," he assented gravely.
A wry smile wrung her mouth.
"Let us hope that the likeness is only skin-deep, then!" she said bitterly. "I don't want her life to be—as mine has been."
"If," he said gently, "if you will trust her to me, Pauline, I swear to you that I will do all in my power to save her from—what you've suffered."
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
"It's all a matter of character," she said nonchalantly.
"Yes," he agreed simply. Then he turned to the child, who was standing a little distance away from him, eyeing him distrustfully. "What do you say, child! You wouldn't be afraid to come and live with me, would you?"
"I am never afraid of people," she answered promptly. "Except the man who comes for the rent; he is fat, and red, and a beast. But I'd rather go on living with Mumsy, thank you—Uncle." The designation came after a brief hesitation. "You see," she added politely, as though fearful that she might have hurt his feelings, "we've always lived together." She flung a glance of almost passionate adoration at her mother, who turned towards the man, smiling a little wistfully.
"You see how it is with her?" she said. "She lives by her affections—conversely from her mother, her heart rules her head. You will be gentle with her, won't you, when the wrench comes?"
"My dear," he said, taking her hand in his and speaking with the quiet solemnity of a man who vows himself before some holy altar, "I shall never forget that she is your child—the child of the woman I love."
A MORNING ADVENTURE
The dewy softness of early morning still hung about the woods, veiling their autumn tints in broken, drifting swathes of pearly mist, while towards the east, where the rising sun pushed long, dim fingers of light into the murky greyness of the sky, a tremulous golden haze grew and deepened.
Little, delicate twitterings vibrated on the air—the sleepy chirrup of awakening birds, the rustle of a fallen leaf beneath the pad of some belated cat stealing back to the domestic hearth, the stir of a rabbit in its burrow.
Presently these sank into insignificance beside a more definite sound—the crackle of dry leaves and the snapping of twigs beneath a heavier footfall than that of any marauding Tom, and through a clearing in the woods slouched the figure of a man, gun on shoulder, the secret of his bulging side-pockets betrayed by the protruding tail feathers of a cock-pheasant.
He was not an attractive specimen of mankind. Beneath the peaked cap, crammed well down on to his head, gleamed a pair of surly, watchful eyes, and, beneath these again, the unshaven, brutal, out-thrust jaw offered little promise of better things.
Nor did his appearance in any way belie his reputation, which was unsavory in the extreme. Indeed, if report spoke truly, "Black Brady," as he was commonly called, had on one occasion only escaped the gallows thanks to the evidence of a village girl—one who had loved him recklessly, to her own undoing. Every one had believed her evidence to be false, but, as she had stuck to what she said through thick and thin, and as no amount of cross-examination had been able to shake her, Brady had contrived to slip through the hands of the police.
Conceiving, however, that, after this episode, the air of his native place might prove somewhat insalubrious for a time, he had migrated thence to Fallowdene, establishing himself in a cottage on the outskirts of the village and finding the major portion of his sustenance by skillfully poaching the preserves of the principal landowners of the surrounding district.
On this particular morning he was well content with his night's work. He had raided the covers of one Patrick Lovell, the owner of Barrow Court, who, although himself a confirmed invalid and debarred from all manner of sport, employed two or three objectionably lynx-eyed keepers to safeguard his preserves for the benefit of his heirs and assigns.
No covers were better stocked than those of Barrow Court, but Brady rarely risked replenishing his larder from them, owing to the extreme wideawakeness of the head gamekeeper. It was therefore not without a warm glow of satisfaction about the region of his heart that he made his way homeward through the early morning, reflecting on the ease with which last night's marauding expedition had been conducted. He even pursed his lips together and whistled softly—a low, flute-like sound that might almost have been mistaken for the note of a blackbird.
But it is unwise to whistle before you are out of the wood, and Brady's triumph was short-lived. Swift as a shadow, a lithe figure darted out from among the trees and planted itself directly in his path.
With equal swiftness, Brady brought his gunstock to his shoulder. Then he hesitated, finger on trigger, for the lion in his path was no burly gamekeeper, as, for the first moment, he had supposed. It was a woman who faced him—a mere girl of twenty, whose slender figure looked somehow boyish in its knitted sports coat and very short, workmanlike skirt. The suggestion of boyishness was emphasized by her attitude, as she stood squarely planted in front of Black Brady, her hands thrust deep into her pockets, her straight young back very flat, and her head a little tilted, so that her eyes might search the surly face beneath the peaked cap.
They were arresting eyes—amazingly dark, "like two patches o' the sky be night," as Brady described them long afterwards to a crony of his, and they gazed up at the astonished poacher from a small, sharply angled face, as delicately cut as a cameo.
"Put that gun down!" commanded an imperious young voice, a voice that held something indescribably sweet and thrilling in its vibrant quality. "What are you doing in these woods?"
Brady, recovering from his first surprise, lowered his gun, but answered truculently—
"Never you mind what I'm doin'."
The girl pointed significantly to his distended pockets.
"I don't need to ask. Empty out your pockets and take yourself off. Do you hear?" she added sharply, as the man made no movement to obey.
"I shan't do nothin' o' the sort," he growled. "You go your ways and leave me to go mine—or it'll be the worse for 'ee." He raised his gun threateningly.
The girl smiled.
"I'm not in the least afraid of that gun," she said tranquilly. "But you are afraid to use it," she added.
"Am I?" He wheeled suddenly, and, on the instant, a deafening report shattered the quiet of the woods. Then the smoke drifted slowly aside, revealing the man and the girl face to face once more.
But although she still stood her ground, dark shadows had suddenly painted themselves beneath her eyes, and the slight young breast beneath the jaunty sports coat rose and fell unevenly. Within the shelter of her coat-pockets her hands were clenched tightly.
"That was a waste of a good cartridge," she observed quietly. "You only fired in the air."
Black Brady glared at her.
"If I'd liked, I could 'ave killed 'ee as easy as knockin' a bird off a bough," he said sullenly.
"You could," she agreed. "And then I should have been dead and you would have been waiting for a hanging. Of the two, I think my position would have been the more comfortable."
A look of unwilling admiration spread itself slowly over the man's face.
"You be a cool 'and, and no mistake," he acknowledged. "I thought to frighten you off by firin'."
The girl nodded.
"Well, as you haven't, suppose you allow that I've won and that it's up to me to dictate terms. If my uncle were to see you—"
"I'm not comin' up to the house—don't you think it, win or no win," broke in Brady hastily.
The girl regarded him judicially.
"I don't think we particularly want you up at the house," she remarked. "If you'll do as I say—empty your pockets—you may go."
The man reluctantly made as though to obey, but even while he hesitated, he saw the girl's eyes suddenly look past him, over his shoulder, and, turning suspiciously, he swung straight into the brawny grip of the head keeper, who, hearing a shot fired, had deserted his breakfast and hurried in the direction of the sound and now came up close behind him.
"Caught this time, Brady, my man," chuckled the keeper triumphantly. "It's gaol for you this journey, as sure's my name's Clegg. Has the fellow been annoying you, Miss Sara?" he added, touching his hat respectfully as he turned towards the girl, whilst with his other hand he still retained his grip of Brady's arm.
She laughed as though suddenly amused.
"Nothing to speak of, Clegg," she replied. "And I'm afraid you mustn't send him to prison this time. I told him if he would empty his pockets he might go. That still holds good," she added, looking towards Brady, who flashed her a quick look of gratitude from beneath his heavy brows and proceeded to turn out the contents of his pockets with commendable celerity.
But the keeper protested against the idea of releasing his prisoner.
"It's a fair cop, miss," he urged entreatingly.
"Can't help it, Clegg. I promised. So you must let him go."
The man obeyed with obvious reluctance. Then, when Brady had hastened to make himself scarce, he turned and scrutinized the girl curiously.
"You all right, Miss Sara? Shall I see you up to the house?"
"No, thanks, Clegg," she said. "I'm—I'm quite all right. You can go back to your breakfast."
"Very good, miss." He touched his hat and plunged back again into the woods.
The girl stood still, looking after him. She was rather white, but she remained very erect and taut until the keeper had disappeared from view. Then the tense rigidity of her figure slackened, as a stretched wire slackens when the pull on it suddenly ceases, and she leaned helpless against the trunk of a tree, limp and shaking, every fine-strung nerve ajar with the strain of her recent encounter with Black Brady. As she felt her knees giving way weakly beneath her, a dogged little smile twisted her lips.
"You are a cool 'and, and no mistake," she whispered shakily, an ironical gleam flickering in her eyes.
She propped herself up against the friendly tree, and, after a few minutes, the quick throbbing of her heard steadied down and the colour began to steal back into her lips. At length she stooped, and, picking up her hat, which had fallen off and lay on the ground at her feet, she proceeded to make her way through the woods in the direction of the house.
Barrow Court, as the name implied, was situated on the brow of a hill, sheltered from the north and easterly winds by a thick belt of pines which half-encircled it, for ever murmuring and whispering together as pine-trees will.
To Sara Tennant, the soft, sibilant noise was a beloved and familiar sound. From the first moment when, as a child, she had come to live at Barrow, the insistent murmur of the pines had held an extraordinary fascination for her. That, and their pungent scent, seemed to be interwoven with her whole life there, like the thread of some single colour that persists throughout the length of a woven fabric.
She had been desperately miserable and lonely at the time of her advent at the Court; and all through the long, wakeful vigil of her first night, it had seemed to her vivid, childish imagination as though the big, swaying trees, bleakly etched against the moonlit sky, had understood her desolation and had whispered and crooned consolingly outside her window. Since then, she had learned that the voice of the pines, like the voice of the sea, is always pitched in a key that responds to the mood of the listener. If you chance to be glad, then the pines will whisper of sunshine and summer, little love idylls that one tree tells to another, but if your heart is heavy within you, you will hear only a dirge in the hush of their waving tops.
As Sara emerged from the shelter of the woods, her eyes instinctively sought the great belt of trees that crowned the opposite hill, with the grey bulk of the house standing out in sharp relief against their eternal green. A little smile of pure pleasure flitted across her face; to her there was something lovable and rather charming about the very architectural inconsistencies which prevented Barrow Court from being, in any sense of the word, a show place.
The central portion of the house, was comparatively modern, built of stone in solid Georgian fashion, but quaintly flanked at either end by a massive, mediaeval tower, survival of the good old days when the Lovells of Fallowdene had held their own against all comers, not even excepting, in the case of one Roderic, his liege lord and master the King, the latter having conceived a not entirely unprovoked desire to deprive him of his lands and liberty—a desire destined, however, to be frustrated by the solid masonry of Barrow.
A flagged terrace ran the whole length of the long, two-storied house, broadening out into wide wings at the base of either tower, and, below the terrace, green, shaven lawns, dotted with old yew, sloped down to the edge of a natural lake which lay in the hollow of the valley, gleaming like a sheet of silver in the morning sunlight.
Prim walks, bordered by high box hedges, intersected the carefully tended gardens, and along one of these Sara took her way, quickening her steps to a run as the booming summons of a gong suddenly reverberated on the air.
She reached the house, flushed and a little breathless, and, tossing aside her hat as she sped through the big, oak-beamed hall, hurried into a pleasant, sunshiny room, where a couple of menservants were moving quietly about, putting the finishing touches to the breakfast table.
An invalid's wheeled chair stood close to the open window, and in it, with a rug tucked about his knees, was seated an elderly man of some sixty-two or three years of age. He was leaning forward, giving animated instructions to a gardener who listened attentively from the terrace outside, and his alert, eager, manner contrasted oddly with the helplessness of limb indicated by the necessity for the wheeled chair.
"That's all, Digby," he said briskly. "I'll go through the hot-houses myself some time to-day."
As he spoke, he signed to one of the footmen in the room to close the window, and then propelled his chair with amazing rapidity to the table.
The instant and careful attention accorded to his commands by both gardener and servant was characteristic of every one in Patrick Lovell's employment. Although he had been a more or less helpless invalid for seven years, he had never lost his grip of things. He was exactly as much master of Barrow Court, the dominant factor there, as he had been in the good times that were gone, when no day's shooting had been too long for him, no run with hounds too fast.
He sat very erect in his wheeled chair, a handsome, well-groomed old aristocrat. Clean-shaven, except for a short, carefully trimmed moustache, grizzled like his hair, his skin exhibited the waxen pallor which so often accompanies chronic ill-health, and his face was furrowed by deep lines, making him look older than his sixty-odd years. His vivid blue eyes were extraordinarily keen and penetrating; possibly they, and the determined, squarish jaw, were answerable for that unquestioning obedience which was invariably accorded him.
"Good-morning, uncle mine!" Sara bent to kiss him as the door closed quietly behind the retreating servants.
Patrick Lovell screwed his monocle into his eye and regarded her dispassionately.
"You look somewhat ruffled," he observed, "both literally and figuratively."
She laughed, putting up a careless hand to brush back the heavy tress of dark hair that had fallen forward over her forehead.
"I've had an adventure," she answered, and proceeded to recount her experience with Black Brady. When she reached the point where the man had fired off his gun, Patrick interrupted explosively.
"The infernal scoundrel! That fellow will dangle at the end of a rope one of these days—and deserve it, too. He's a murderous ruffian—a menace to the countryside."
"He only fired into the air—to frighten me," explained Sara.
Her uncle looked at her curiously.
"And did he succeed?" he asked.
She bestowed a little grin of understanding upon him.
"He did," she averred gravely. Then, as Patrick's bushy eyebrows came together in a bristling frown, she added: "But he remained in ignorance of the fact."
The frown was replaced by a twinkle.
"That's all right, then," came the contented answer.
"All the same, I really was frightened," she persisted. "It gave me quite a nasty turn, as the servants say. I don't think"—meditatively—"that I enjoy being shot at. Am I a funk, my uncle?"
"No, my niece"—with some amusement. "On the contrary, I should define the highest type of courage as self-control in the presence of danger—not necessarily absence of fear. The latter is really no more credit to you than eating your dinner when you're hungry."
"Mine, then, I perceive to be the highest type of courage," chuckled Sara. "It's a comforting reflection."
It was, when propounded by Patrick Lovell, to whom physical fear was an unknown quantity. Had he lived in the days of the Terror, he would assuredly have taken his way to the guillotine with the same gay, debonair courage which enabled the nobles of France to throw down their cards and go to the scaffold with a smiling promise to the other players that they would continue their interrupted game in the next world.
And when Sara had come to live with Patrick, a dozen years ago, he had rigorously inculcated in her youthful mind a contempt for every form of cowardice, moral and physical.
It had not been all plain sailing, for Sara was a highly strung child, with the vivid imagination that is the primary cause of so much that is carelessly designated cowardice. But Patrick had been very wise in his methods. He had never rebuked her for lack of courage; he had simply taken it for granted that she would keep her grip of herself.
Sara's thoughts slid back to an incident which had occurred during their early days together. She had been very much alarmed by the appearance of a huge mastiff who was permitted the run of the house, and her uncle, noticing her shrinking avoidance of the rather formidable looking beast, had composedly bidden her take him to the stables and chain him up. For an instant the child had hesitated. Then, something in the man's quiet confidence that she would obey had made its claim on her childish pride, and, although white to the lips, she had walked straight up to the great creature, hooked her small fingers into his collar, and marched him off to his kennel.
Courage under physical pain she had learned from seeing Patrick contend with his own infirmity. He suffered intensely at times, but neither groan nor word of complaint was ever allowed to escape his set lips. Only Sara would see, after what he described as "one of my damn bad days, m'dear," new lines added to the deepening network that had so aged his appearance lately.
At these times she herself endured agonies of reflex suffering and apprehension, since her attachment to Patrick Lovell was the moving factor of her existence. Other girls had parents, brothers and sisters, and still more distant relatives upon whom their capacity for loving might severally expend itself. Sara had none of these, and the whole devotion of her intensely ardent nature lavished itself upon the man whom she called uncle.
Their mutual attitude was something more than the accepted relationship implied. They were friends—these two—intimate friends, comrades on an equal footing, respecting each other's reserves and staunchly loyal to one another. Perhaps this was accounted for in a measure by the very fact that they were united by no actual bond of blood. That Sara was Patrick's niece by adoption was all the explanation of her presence at Barrow Court that he had ever vouchsafed to the world in general, and it practically amounted to the sum total of Sara's own knowledge of the matter.
Hers had been a life of few relationships. She had no recollection of any one who had ever stood towards her in the position of a father, and though she realized that the one-time existence of such a personage must be assumed, she had never felt much curiosity concerning him.
The horizon of her earliest childhood had held but one figure, that of an adored mother, and "home" had been represented by a couple of meager rooms at the top of a big warren of a place known as Wallater's Buildings, tenanted principally by families of the artisan class.
Thus debarred by circumstances from the companionship of other children, Sara's whole affections had centred round her mother, and she had never forgotten the sheer, desolating anguish of that moment when the dreadful, unresponsive silence of the sheeted figure, lying in the shabby little bedroom they had shared together, brought home to her the significance of death.
She had not cried, as most children of eight would have done, but she had suffered in a kind of frozen silence, incapable of any outward expression of grief.
"Unfeelin', I call it!" declared the woman who lived on the same floor as the Tennants, and who had attended at the doctor's behest, to a friend and neighbour who was occupied in boiling a kettle over a gas-ring. "Must be a cold-'earted child as can see 'er own mother lyin' dead without so much as a tear." She sniffed. "'Aven't you got that cup o' tea ready yet? I can allus drink a cup o' tea after a layin'-out."
Sara had watched the two women drinking their tea with brooding eyes, her small breast heaving with the intensity of her resentment. Without being in any way able to define her emotions, she felt that there was something horrible in their frank enjoyment of the steaming liquid, gulped down to the cheerful accompaniment of a running stream of intimate gossip, while all the time that quiet figure lay on the narrow bed—motionless, silent, wrapped in the strange and immense aloofness of the dead.
Presently one of the women poured out a third cup of tea and pushed it towards the child, slopping in the thin, bluish-looking milk with a generous hand.
"'Ave a cup, child. It's as good a drop o' tea as ever I tasted."
For a moment Sara stared at her speechlessly; then, with a sudden passionate gesture, she swept the cup on to the floor.
The clash of breaking china seemed to ring through the chamber of death, the women's voices rose shrilly in reproof, and Sara, fleeing into the adjoining room, cast herself face downwards upon the floor, horror-stricken. It was not the raucous anger of the women which she heeded; that passed her by. But she had outraged some fine, instinctive sense by reverence that lay deep within her own small soul.
Still she did not cry. Only, as she lay on the ground with her face hidden, she kept repeating in a tense whisper—
"You know I didn't mean it, God! You know I didn't mean it!"
It was then that Patrick Lovell had appeared, coming in response to she knew not what summons, and had taken her away with him. And the tendrils of her affection, wrenched from their accustomed hold, had twined themselves about this grey-haired, blue-eyed man, set so apart by every soigne detail of his person from the shabby, slip-shod world which Sara had known, but who yet stood beside the bed on which her mother lay, with a wrung mouth beneath his clipped moustache and a mist of tears dimming his keen eyes.
Sara had loved him for those tears.
THE PASSING OF PATRICK LOVELL
Autumn had given place to winter, and a bitter northeast wind was tearing through the pines, shrieking, as it fled, like the cry of a lost soul. The eerie sound of it served in some indefinable way to emphasise the cosy warmth and security of the room where Sara and her uncle were sitting, their chairs drawn close up to the log fire which burned on the wide, old-fashioned hearth.
Sara was engrossed in a book, her head bent low above its pages, unconscious of the keen blue eyes that had been regarding her reflectively for some minutes.
With the passage of the last two months, Patrick's face seemed to have grown more waxen, worn a little finer, and now, as he sat quietly watching the slender figure on the opposite side of the hearth, it wore a curious, inscrutable expression, as though he were mentally balancing the pros and cons of some knotty point.
At last he apparently came to a decision, for he laid aside the newspaper he had been reading a few moments before, muttering half audibly:
"Must take your fences as you come to 'em."
Sara looked up abstractedly.
"Did you say anything?" she asked doubtfully.
Patrick gave his shoulders a grim shake.
"I'm going to," he replied. "It's something that must be said, and, as I've never been in favour of postponing a thing just because its disagreeable, we may as well get it over."
He had focused Sara's attention unmistakably now.
"What is it?" she asked quickly. "You haven't had bad news?"
An odd smile crossed his face.
"On the contrary." He hesitated a moment, then continued: "I had a longish talk with Dr. McPherson yesterday, and the upshot of it is that I may be required to hand in my checks any day now. I wanted you to know," he added simply.
It was characteristic of the understanding between these two that Patrick made no effort to "break the news," or soften it in any way. He had always been prepared to face facts himself, and he had trained Sara in the same stern creed.
So that now, when he quietly stated in plain language the thing which she had been inwardly dreading for some weeks—for, though silent on the matter, she had not failed to observe his appearance of increasing frailty—she took it like a thorough-bred. Her eyes dilated a little, but her voice was quite steady as she said:
"I mean that before very long I shall put off this vile body." He glanced down whimsically at his useless legs, cloaked beneath the inevitable rug. "After all," he continued, "life—and death—are both fearfully interesting if one only goes to meet them instead of running away from them. Then they become bogies."
"And what shall I do . . . without you?" she said very low.
"Aye." He nodded. "It's worse for those who are left behind. I've been one of them, and I know. I remember—" He broke off short, his blue eyes dreaming. Presently he gave his shoulders the characteristic little shake which presaged the dismissal of some recalcitrant secret thought, and went on in quick, practical tones.
"I don't want to go out leaving a lot of loose ends behind me—a tangle for you to unravel. So, since the fiat has gone forth—McPherson's a sound man and knows his job—let's face it together, little old pal. It will mean your leaving Barrow, you know," he added tentatively.
Sara nodded, her face rather white.
"Yes, I know. I shan't care—then."
"Oh yes, you will"—with shrewd wisdom. "It will be an extra drop in the bucket, you'll find, when the time comes. Unfortunately, however, there's no getting round the entail, and when I go, my cousin, Major Durward, will reign in my stead."
"Why does the Court go to a Durward?" asked Sara listlessly. "Aren't there any Lovells to inherit?"
"He is a Lovell. His father and mine were brothers, but his godfather, old Timothy Durward left him his property on condition that he adopted the name. Geoffrey Durward has a son called Timothy—after the old man."
"The Durwards have never been here since I came to live with you," observed Sara thoughtfully. "Don't you care for him—your cousin, I mean?"
"Geoffrey? Yes, he's a charming fellow, and he's been a rattling good soldier—got his D.S.O. in the South African campaign. But he and his wife—she was a Miss Eden—were stationed in India so many years, I rather lost touch with them. They came home when the Durward property fell in to them—about seven or eight years ago. She, I think"—reminiscently—"was one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen."
The shadow in Sara's eyes lifted for a moment.
"Is that the reason you've always remained a bachelor?" she asked, twinkling.
"God bless my soul, no! I never wanted to marry Elisabeth Eden—though there were plenty of men who did." He regarded Sara with an odd smile. "Some day, you'll know—why I never wanted to marry Elisabeth."
"Tell me now."
He shook his head.
"No. You'll know soon enough—soon enough."
He was silent, fallen a-dreaming once again; and again he seemed to pull himself up short, forcing himself back to the consideration of the practical needs of the moment.
"As I was saying, Sara, sooner or later you'll have to turn out of the old Court. It's entailed, and the income with it. But I've a clear four hundred a year, altogether apart from the Barrow moneys, and that, at my death, will be yours."
"I don't want to hear about it!" burst out Sara passionately. "It's hateful even talking of such things."
Patrick smiled, amused and a little touched by youth's lack of worldly wisdom.
"Don't be a fool, my dear. I shan't die a day sooner for having made my will—and I shall die a deal more comfortably, knowing that you are provided for. I promised your mother that, as far as lay in my power, I would shield you from wrecking your life as she wrecked hers. And money—a secure little income of her own—is a very good sort of shield for a women. Four hundred's not enough to satisfy a mercenary individual, but it's enough to enable a woman to marry for love—and not for a home!" He spoke with a kind of repressed bitterness, as though memory had stirred into fresh flame the embers of some burnt-out passion of regret, and Sara looked at him with suddenly aroused interest.
But apparently Patrick did not sense the question that troubled on her lips, or, if he did, had no mind to answer it, for he went on in lighter tones:
"There, that's enough about business for the present. I only wanted you to know that, whatever happens, you will be all right as far as bread-and-cheese are concerned."
"I believe you think that's all I should care about!" exclaimed Sara stormily.
Patrick smiled. He had not been a citizen of the world for over sixty years without acquiring the grim knowledge that neither intense happiness nor deep grief suffice to deaden for very long the pinpricks of material discomfort. But the worldly-wise old man possessed a broad tolerance for the frailties of human nature, and his smile held nothing of contempt, but only a whimsical humour touched with kindly understanding.
"I know you better than that, my dear," he answered quietly. "But I often think of what I once heard an old working-woman, down in the village, say. She had just lost her husband, and the rector's wife was handing out the usual platitudes, and holding forth on the example of Christian fortitude exhibited by a very wealthy lady in the neighbourhood, who had also been recently widowed. 'That's all very well, ma'am,' said my old woman drily, 'but fat sorrow's a deal easier to bear than lean sorrow.' And though it may sound unromantic, it's the raw truth—only very few people are sincere enough to acknowledge it."
In the weeks that followed, Patrick seemed to recover a large measure of his accustomed vigour. He was extraordinarily alert and cheerful—so alive that Sara began to hope Dr. McPherson had been mistaken in his opinion, and that there might yet remain many more good years of the happy comradeship that existed between herself and her guardian.
Such buoyancy appeared incompatible with the imminence of death, and one day, driven by the very human instinct to hear her optimism endorsed, she scoffed a little, tentatively, at the doctor's verdict.
Patrick shook his head.
"No, my dear, he's right," he said decisively. "But I'm not going to whine about it. Taken all round, I've found life a very good sort of thing—although"—reflectively—"I've missed the best it has to offer a man. And probably I'll find death a very good sort of thing, too, when it comes."
And so Patrick Lovell went forward, his spirit erect, to meet death with the same cheerful, half-humorous courage he had opposed to the emergencies of life.
It was a few days after this, on Christmas Eve, that Sara, coming into his special den with a gay little joke on her lips and a great bunch of mistletoe in her arms, was arrested by the sudden, chill quiet of the little room.
The familiar wheeled chair was drawn up to the window, and she could see the back of Patrick's head with its thick crop of grizzled hair, but he did not turn or speak at the sound of her entrance.
"Uncle, didn't you hear me? Are you asleep? . . . Uncle!" Her voice shrilled on to a sharp staccato note, then cracked and broke suddenly.
There came no movement from the chair. The silence remained unbroken save for the ticking of a clock and the loud beating of her own heart. The two seemed to merge into one gigantic pulse . . . deafening . . . overwhelming . . . like the surge of some immense, implacable sea.
She swayed a little, clutching at the door for support. Then the throbbing ceased, and she was only conscious of a solitude so intense that it seemed to press about her like a tangible thing.
Swiftly, on feet of terror, she crossed the room and stood looking down at the motionless figure of her uncle. His face was turned towards the sun, and wore an expression of complete happiness and content, as though he had just found something for which he had been searching. He had looked like that a thousand times, when, seeking for her, he had come upon her, at last, hidden in some shady nook in the garden or swinging in her hammock. She could almost hear the familiar "Oh, there you are, little pal!" with which he would joyously acclaim her discovery.
She lifted the hand that was resting quietly on his knee. It lay in hers, flaccid and inert, its dreadful passivity stinging her into realization of the truth. Patrick was dead. And, judging from his expression, he had found death "a very good sort of thing," just as he had expected.
For a little while Sara remained standing quietly beside the still figure in the chair. They would never be alone together any more—not quite like this, Patrick sitting in his accustomed place, wearing his beloved old tweeds, with an immaculate tie and with his single eyeglass—about which she had so often chaffed him—dangling across his chest on its black ribbon.
Her mouth quivered. "Stand up to it!" . . . The voice—Patrick's voice—seemed to sound in her ear . . . "Stand up to it, little old pal!"
She bit back the sob that climbed to her throat, and stood silently facing the enemy, as it were.
This was the end, then, of one chapter of her existence—the chapter of sheltered, happy life at Barrow, and in these quiet moments, alone for the last time with Patrick Lovell, Sara tried to gather strength and courage from her memories of his cheery optimism to face gamely whatever might befall her in the big world into which she must so soon adventure.
A SHEAF OF MEMORIES
It was over. The master of Barrow had been carried shoulder-high to the great vault where countless Lovells slept their last sleep, the blinds had been drawn up, letting in the wintry sunlight once again, and the mourners had gone their ways. Only the new owner of the Court still lingered, and even he would be leaving very soon now.
Sara, her slim, boyish build, with its long line of slender hip, accentuated by the clinging black of her gown, moved listlessly across the hall to where Major Durward was standing smoking by the big open fire, waiting for the car which was to take him to the station.
He made as though to throw his cigarette away at her approach, but she gestured a hasty negative.
"No, don't," she said. "I like it. It seems to make things a little more natural. Uncle Pat"—with a wan smile—"was always smoking."
Her sombre eyes were shadowed and sad, and there was a pinched, drawn look about her nostrils. Major Durward regarded her with a concerned expression on his kindly face.
"You will miss him badly," he said.
"Yes, I shall miss him,"—simply. She returned his glance frankly. "You are very like him, you know," she added suddenly.
It was true. The big, soldierly man beside her, with his jolly blue eyes, grey hair, and short-clipped military moustache, bore a striking resemblance to the Patrick Lovell of ten years ago, before ill-health had laid its finger upon him, and during the difficult days that succeeded her uncle's death Sara had unconsciously found a strange kind of comfort in the likeness. She had dreaded inexpressibly the advent of the future owner of Barrow, but, when he had arrived, his resemblance to his dead cousin, and a certain similarity of gesture and of voice, common enough in families, had at once established a sense of kinship, which had deepened with her recognition of Durward's genuine kind-heartedness and solicitude for her comfort.
He had immediately assumed control of affairs, taking all the inevitable detail of arrangement off her shoulders, yet deferring to her as though she were still just as much mistress of the Court as she had been before her uncle's death. In every way he had tried to ease and smooth matters for her, and she felt proportionately grateful to him.
"Then, if you think I'm like him," said Durward gently, "will you let me try to take his place a little? I mean," he explained hastily, fearing she might misunderstand him, "that you will miss his guardianship and care of you, as well as the good pal you found in him. Will you let me try to fill in the gaps, if—if you should want advice, or service—anything over which a male man can be a bit useful? Oh——" breaking off with a short, embarrassed laugh—"it is so difficult to explain what I do mean!"
"I think I know," said Sara, smiling faintly. "You mean that now that Uncle Pat has gone, you don't want me to feel quite adrift in the world."
The big man, hampered by his masculine shyness of a difficult situation, smiled back at her, relieved.
"Yes, that's it, that's it!" he agreed eagerly. "I want you to regard me as a—a sort of sheet-anchor upon which you can pull in a storm."
"Thank you," said Sara. "I will. But I hope there won't be storms of such magnitude that I shall need to pull very hard."
Durward smoked furiously for a moment. Then he burst forth—
"You can't imagine what a brute I feel for turning you out of the Court. I wish it need not be. But the Lovells have always lived at the old place, and my wife—"
"Naturally." She interrupted him gently. "Naturally, she wishes to live here. I owe you no grudge for that," smiling. "When—how soon do you think of coming? I will make my arrangements accordingly."
"We should like to come as soon as possible, really," he admitted reluctantly. "I have the chance of leasing Durward Park, if the tenant can have what practically amounts to immediate possession. And of course, in the circumstances, I should be glad to get the Durward property off my hands."
"Of course you would." Sara nodded understandingly. "If you could let me have a few days in which to find some rooms—"
"No, no," he broke in eagerly. "I want you still to regard Barrow as your headquarters—to stay on here with us until you have fixed some permanent arrangement that suits you."
She was touched by the kindly suggestion; nevertheless, she shook her head with decision.
"It is more than kind of you to think of such a thing," she said gratefully. "But it is quite out of the question. Why, I am not even a cousin several times removed! I have no claim at all. Mrs. Durward—"
"Will be delighted. She asked me to be sure and tell you so. Please, Miss Tennant, don't refuse me. Don't"—persuasively—"oblige us to feel more brutal interlopers than we need."
Still she hesitated.
"If I were sure—" she began doubtfully.
"You may be—absolutely sure. There!"—with a sigh of relief—"that's settled. But, as I can see you're the kind of person whose conscientious scruples will begin to worry you the moment I'm gone"—he smiled—"my wife will write to you. Promise not to run away in the meantime?"
"I promise," said Sara. She held out her hand. "And—thank you." Her eyes, suddenly misty, supplemented the baldness of the words.
He took the outstretched hand in a close, friendly grip.
"Good. That's the car, I think," as the even purring of a motor sounded from outside. "I must be off. But it's only au revoir, remember."
She walked with him to the door, and stood watching until the car was lost in sight round a bend of the drive. Then, as she turned back into the hall, the emptiness of the house seemed to close down about her all at once, like a pall.
Amid the manifold duties and emergencies of the last few days she had hardly had time to realize the immensity of her loss. Practical matters had forcibly obtruded themselves upon her consideration—the necessity of providing accommodation for the various relatives who had attended the funeral, the frequent consultations that Major Durward, to all intents and purposes a stranger to the ways of Barrow, had been obliged to hold with her, the reading of the will—all these had combined to keep her in a state of mental and physical alertness which had mercifully precluded retrospective thought.
But now the necessity for doing anything was past; there were no longer any claims upon her time, nothing to distract her, and she had leisure to visualize the full significance of Patrick's death and all that it entailed.
Rather languidly she mounted the stairs to her own room, and drawing up a low chair to the fire, sat staring absently into its glowing heart.
Virtually, she was alone in the world. Even Major Durward, who had been so infinitely kind, was not bound to her by any ties other than those forged of his own friendly feelings. True, he had been Patrick's cousin. But Patrick, although he had made up Sara's whole world, had been entirely unrelated to her.
Her heart throbbed with a sudden rush of intense gratitude towards the man who had so amply fulfilled his trust as guardian, and she glanced up wistfully at the big photograph of him which stood upon the chimney-piece.
Propped against the photo-frame was a square white envelope on which was written: To be given to my ward, Sara Tennant, after my death. The family solicitor had handed it to her the previous day, after the reading of the will, but the demands upon her time and attention had been so many, owing to the number of relatives who temporarily filled the house, that she had laid it on one side for perusal when she should be alone once more.
The sight of the familiar handwriting brought a swift mist of tears to her eyes, and she hesitated a little before opening the sealed envelope.
It was strange to realize that here was some message for her from Patrick himself, but that no matter what the envelope might contain, she would be able to give back no answer, make no reply. The knowledge seemed to set him very far away from her, and for a few moments she sobbed quietly, feeling utterly solitary and alone.
Presently she brushed the tears from her eyes and slit open the flap of the envelope. Inside was a half-sheet of notepaper wrapped about a small old-fashioned key, and on the outer fold was written: "The key of the Chippendale bureau." That was all.
For an instant Sara was puzzled. Then she remembered that amongst Patrick's personal bequests to her had been that of the small mahogany bureau which stood near the window of his bedroom. It had not occurred to her at the time that its contents might have any interest for her; in fact, she had supposed it to be empty. But now she realized that there was evidently something within it which Patrick must have valued, seeing he had guarded the key so carefully and directed its delivery to her through the reliable hands of his solicitor.
Rather glad of anything that might help to occupy her thoughts, she decided to investigate the bureau at once, and accordingly made her way to Patrick's bedroom.
On the threshold she paused, her heart contracting painfully as the spick and span aspect of the room, its ordered absence of any trace of occupation, reminded her that its one-time owner would never again have any further need of it.
Everything in the house seemed to present her grief to her anew, from some fresh angle, forcing comparison of what had been with what was—the wheeled chair, standing vacant in one of the lobbies, the tobacco jar perched upon the chimney-piece, the pot of heliotrope—Patrick's favourite blossom—scenting the library with its fragrance.
And now his room—empty, swept, and garnished like any one of the score or so of spare bedrooms in the house!
With an effort, Sara forced herself to enter it. Crossing to the window, she pulled a chair up to the Chippendale bureau and unlocked it. Then she drew out the sliding desk supports and laid back the flap of polished mahogany that served as a writing-table. She was conscious of a fleeting sense of admiration for the fine-grained wood and for the smooth "feel" of the old brass handles, worn by long usage, then her whole attention was riveted by the three things which were all the contents of the desk—a packet of letters, stained and yellowing with age and tied together with a broad, black ribbon, a jeweller's velvet case stamped with faded gilt lettering, and an envelope addressed to herself in Patrick's handwriting.
Very gently, with that tender reverence we accord to the sad little possessions of our dead, Sara gathered them up and carried them to her own sitting-room. She felt she could not stay to examine them in that strangely empty, lifeless room that had been Patrick's; the terrible, chill silence of it seemed to beat against the very heart of her.
Laying aside the jeweller's case and the package of letters, she opened the envelope which bore her name and drew out a folded sheet of paper, covered with Patrick's small, characteristic writing. Impulsively she brushed it with her lips, then, leaning back in her chair, began to read, her expression growing curiously intent as she absorbed the contents of the letter. Once she smiled, and more than once a sudden rush of unbidden tears blurred the closely written lines in front of her.
"When you receive this, little pal Sara"—ran the letter—"I shall have done with this world. Except that it means leaving you, my dear, I shall be glad to go, for I'm a very tired man. So, when it comes, you must try not to grudge me my 'long leave.' But there are several things you ought to know, and which I want you to know, yet I have never been able to bring myself to speak of them to you. To tell you about them meant digging into the past—and very often there is a hot coal lingering in the heart of a dead fire that is apt to burn the fingers of whoever rakes out the ashes. Frankly, then, I funked it. But now the time has come when I can't put it off any longer.
"Little old pal, have you ever wondered why I loved you so much—why you stood so close to my heart? I used to tease you and say it was because we were no relation to each other, didn't I? If you had been really my niece, proper respect (on your part, of course, for your aged uncle!) and the barrier of a generation would have set us the usual miles apart. But there was never anything of that with us, was there? I bullied you, I know, when you needed it, but we were always comrades. And to me, you were something more than a comrade, something almost sacred and always adorable—the child of the woman I loved.
"For we should have been married, Sara, your mother and I, had I not been a poor man. We were engaged, but at that time, I was only a younger son, with a younger son's meager portion, and the prospect of my falling heir to Barrow seemed of all things the most improbable. And Pauline Malincourt, your mother, had been taught to abhor the idea of living on small means—trained to regard her beauty and breeding as marketable assets, to go to the highest bidder. For, although her parents came of fine old stock—there's no better blood in England than the Malincourt strain, my dear—they were deadly hard-up. So hard-up, that when they died—as the result of a carriage accident which occurred a week after Pauline's marriage—they left nothing behind them but debts which your father liquidated.
"Of your father, Caleb Tennant, the millionaire, I will not write, seeing that, after all, you are his child. It is enough to say that he was a hard man, and that he and your mother led a very unhappy life together, so unhappy that at last she left him, choosing rather to live in utter poverty than remain with him. He never forgave her for leaving him, and when he died, he willed every penny he possessed to some scoundrelly cousin of his—who is presumably enjoying the inheritance which should have been yours.
"That is your family history, my dear, and it is right that you should know it—and know what you have to fight against. To be a Malincourt is at once to have a curse and a blessing hung round your neck. The Malincourts were originally of French extraction—descendants of the haute noblesse of old France—cursed with the devil's own pride and passionate self-will, and blessed with looks and brains and charm above the average. They never bend; they break sooner. And I think you've got the lot, Sara—the full inheritance.
"Your mother was a true Malincourt. She could not bend, and when things went awry, she broke.
"You must never think hardly of her, for she had been brought up in that atmosphere of almost desperate pride which is too frequently the curse of the poverty-stricken aristocrat. She made a ghastly mistake, and paid for it afterwards every day of her life. And she was urged into it by her father, who declined to recognize me in any way, and by her mother, who made her life at home a simple hell—as a clever society woman can make of any young girl's life if she chooses.
"Just before she died, she sent for me and gave you into my care, begging me to shield you from spoiling your life as she had spoiled hers.
"I've done what I could. You are at least independent. No one can drive you with the spur of poverty into selling yourself, as she was driven. But there are a hundred other rocks in life against which you may wreck your happiness, and remember, in the long run, you sink or swim by your own force of character.
"And when love comes to you, as it will come,—for no woman with your eyes and your mouth ever yet lived a loveless life!—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, nor the tittle-tattle of other folks, and even if it seems that something insurmountable lies between you and the fulfillment of love, go over it, or round it, or through it! If it's a real love, your faith must be big enough to remove the mountains in the way—or to go over them.
"The package of letters you will find in the bureau were those your mother wrote to me during the few short weeks we belonged to each other. I'm a sentimental old fool, and I've never been able to bring myself to burn them. Will you do this for me?
"In the little velvet case you will find her miniature, which I give to you. It is very like her—and like you, too, for you resemble her wonderfully in appearance. Often, to look at you has made my heart ache; sometimes it almost seemed as if the years had rolled back and Pauline herself stood before me.
"And now that the order for release is on its way to me, it is rather wonderful to reflect that in a few weeks—a few days, perhaps—I shall be seeing her again. . . .
"Good-bye, little pal of mine. We've had some good times together, haven't we?
"Your devoted, PATRICK."
Sara sat very still, the letter clasped in her hand. She had always secretly believed that some long-dead romance lay behind Patrick's bachelorhood, but she had never suspected that her own mother had been the woman he had loved.
The knowledge illumined all the past with a fresh light, investing it with a tender, reminiscent sentiment. It was easy now to understand the almost idyllic atmosphere Patrick had infused into their life together. Sara recognized it as the outcome of a love and fidelity as beautiful and devoted as it is rare. Patrick's love for her mother had partaken of the enduring qualities of the great passions of history. Paolo and Francesca, Abelard and Heloise—even they could have known no deeper, no more lasting love than that of Patrick Lovell for Pauline.
The love-letters of the dead woman lay on Sara's lap, still tied together with the black ribbon which Patrick's fingers must have knotted round them. There were only six of them—half-a-dozen memories of a love that had come hopelessly to grief—tangible memories which her lover had never had the heart to destroy.
Sara handled them caressingly, these few, pathetic records of a bygone passion, and at length, with hands that shook a little, she removed the ribbon that bound them together. Where it had lain, preserving the strip of paper beneath it from contact with the dust, bands of white traversed the faint discoloration which time had worked upon the outermost envelopes—mutely witnessing to the long years that had passed away since the letters had been penned in the first rapturous glow of hot young love.
Slowly, with a rather wistful sense of regret that it must needs be done, Sara dropped them one by one, unread, into the fire, and watched them flare up with a sudden spurt of flame, then curl and shrivel into dead, grey ash—those last links with the romance of his youth which Patrick had treasured so long and faithfully.
She wondered what manner of woman her mother could have been to inspire so great a love that even her own unfaith had failed to sour it. Her childish recollection, blurred by the passage of years, was of a white-faced, rather haggard-looking woman with deep-set, haunted eyes and a bitter mouth, but whose rare smile, when it came, was so enchanting that it wiped out, for the moment, all remembrance of the harsh lines which hardened her face when in repose.
With eager hands the girl picked up the little velvet case that held the miniature, and snapped open the lid. The painting within, rimmed in old paste, was of a girl in her early twenties. The face was oval, with a small, pointed chin and a vivid red mouth, curling up at the corners. There was little colour in the cheeks, and the black hair and extraordinarily dark eyes served to enhance the creamy pallor of the skin. It was not altogether an English face; the cheek-bones were too high, and there was a definiteness of colouring, a decisive sharpness of outline in the piquant features, not often found in a purely English type.
Seen thus, the face looked strangely familiar to Sara, and yet no memory of hers could recall her mother as she must have been at the time this portrait was painted.
The miniature still in her hand, she moved hesitatingly to a mirror, so placed that the light from the window fell full upon her as she faced it. In a moment the odd sense of familiarity was explained. There, looking back at her from the mirror, was the same sharply angled face, the same warm ivory pallor of complexion, accentuated by raven hair and black, sombre eyes. What was it Patrick had written? "No woman with your eyes and your mouth ever yet lived a loveless life."
With a curious deliberation, Sara examined the features in question. The eyes were long, and the lids, opaquely white and fringed with jet-black lashes, slanted downwards a little at the outer corners, bestowing a curiously intense expression, such as one sometimes sees in the eyes of an actor, and the mouth was the same vividly scarlet mouth of the face in the miniature, at once passionate and sensitive.
The French strain in the Malincourt family had reproduced itself indubitably, both in the appearance of Pauline and of Pauline's daughter. Would the mother's tragedy, fruit of her singular charm and of a pride which had accorded love but a secondary place in her scheme of life, also be re-enacted in the case of the daughter? It seemed almost as though Patrick must have had pre-vision of some like fiery ordeal though which his "little old pal" might have to pass, so urgent had been the warning he had uttered.
Sara shivered, as if she, too, felt a prescience of coming disaster. It was as though a shadow had fallen across her path, a shadow of which the substance lay hidden, shrouded in the mists which veil the future.
ELISABETH—AND HER SON
The entrance to Barrow Court was somewhat forbidding. A flight of shallow granite steps, flanked by balustrades of the same austere substance, terminating in huge, rough-hewn pillars, led up to an enormous door of ancient oak, studded with nails—destined, it would seem, to resist the onslaught of an armed multitude. The sternness of its aspect, when the great door was closed, seemed to add an increased warmth to the suggestion of welcome it conveyed when, as now, it was swung hospitably open, emitting a ruddy glow of firelight from the hall beyond.
Sara was standing at the top of the granite steps, waiting to greet the Durwards, whose approach was already heralded by the humming of a motor far down the avenue.
A faint regret disquieted her. This was the last—the very last—time she would stand at the head of those stairs in the capacity of a hostess welcoming her guests; and even now her position there was merely an honorary one! In a few minutes, when Mrs. Durward should step across the threshold, it was she who would be transformed into the hostess, while Sara would have to take her place as a simple guest in the house which for twelve years had been her home.
Thrusting the thought determinedly aside, she watched the big limousine swing smoothly round the curve of the drive and pull up in front of the house, and there was no trace of reluctance in the smile of greeting which she summoned up for Major Durward's benefit as he alighted and came towards her with outstretched hand.
"But where are the others?" asked Sara, seeing that the chauffeur immediately headed the car for the garage.
"They're coming along on foot," explained Durward. "Elisabeth declared they should see nothing of the place cooped up in the car, so they got out at the lodge and are walking across the park."
Sara preceded him into the hall, and they stood chatting together by the tea-table until the sound of voices announced the arrival of the rest of the party.
"Here they are!" exclaimed Durward, hurrying forward to meet them, while Sara followed a trifle hesitatingly, conscious of a sudden accession of shyness.
Notwithstanding the charming letter she had received from Mrs. Durward, begging her to remain at Barrow Court exactly as long as it suited her, now that the moment had come which would actually install the new mistress of the Court, she began to feel as though her continued presence there might be regarded rather in the light of an intrusion.
Mrs. Durward's letter might very well have been dictated only by a certain superficial politeness, or, even, solely at the instance of her husband, and it was conceivable that the writer would be none too pleased that her invitation had been so literally interpreted.
In the course of a few seconds of time Sara contrived to work herself up into a condition bordering upon panic. And then a very low contralto voice, indescribably sweet, and with an audacious ripple of laughter running through it, swept all her scruples into the rubbish heap. There was no doubting the sincerity of the speaker.
"It was so nice of you not to run away, Miss Tennant." As she spoke, Mrs. Durward shook hands cordially. "Poor Geoffrey couldn't help being the heir, you know, and if you'd refused to stay, he'd have felt just like the villain in a cinema film. You've saved us from becoming the crawling, self-reproachful wretches." Then she turned and beckoned to her son. "This is Tim," she said simply, but the quality of her voice was very much as though she had announced: "This is the sun, and moon, and stars."
As mother and son stood side by side, Sara's first impression was that she had never seen two more beautiful people. They were both tall, and a kind of radiance seemed to envelope them—a glory imparted by the sheer force of perfect symmetry and health—and, in the case of the former of the two, there was an added charm in a certain little air of stateliness and distinction which characterized her movements.
Patrick's reminiscent comment on Elisabeth Durward recalled itself to Sara's mind: "I think she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen," and she recognized that almost any one might have truthfully subscribed to the same opinion.
Mrs. Durward must have been at least forty years of age—arguing from the presence of the six foot of young manhood whom she called son—but her appearance was still that of a woman who had not long passed her thirtieth milestone. The supple lines of her figure held the merest suggestion of maturity in their gracious curves, and the rich chestnut hair, swathed round her small, fine head, gleamed with the sheen which only youth or immense vitality bestows. Her skin was of that almost dazzling purity which is so often found in conjunction with reddish hair, and the defect of over-light brows and lashes, which not infrequently mars the type, was conspicuously absent. Her eyes were arresting. They were of a deep, hyacinth blue, very luminous and soft, and quite beautiful. But they held a curiously veiled expression—a something guarded and inscrutable—as though they hid some secret inner knowledge sentinelled from the world at large.
Sara, meeting their still, enigmatic gaze, was subtly conscious of an odd sense of repulsion, almost amounting to dread, and then Elisabeth, making some trivial observation as she moved nearer to the fire, smiled across at her, and, in the extraordinary charm of her smile, the momentary sensation of fear was forgotten.
Nevertheless, it was with a feeling of relief that Sara encountered the gay, frank glance of the son.
Tim Durward, though dowered to the full with his mother's beauty, had yet been effectually preserved from the misfortune of being an effeminate repetition of her. In him, Elisabeth's glowing auburn colouring had sobered to a steady brown—evidenced in the crisp, curly hair and sun-tanned skin; and the misty hyacinth-blue of her eyes had hardened in the eyes of her son into the clear, bright azure of the sea, whist the beautiful contours of her face, repeated in his, had strengthened into a fine young virility.
"I can't cure mother of introducing me as if I were the Lord Mayor," he murmured plaintively to Sara as they sat down to tea. "I suppose it's the penalty of being an only son."
"Nothing of the sort," asserted Elisabeth composedly. "Naturally I'm pleased with you—you're so absurdly like me. I always look upon you in the light of a perpetual compliment, because you've elected to grow up like me instead of like Geoffrey"—nodding towards her husband. "After all, you had us both to choose from."
Tim shouted with delight.
"Listen to her, Miss Tennant! And for years I've been mistaking mere vulgar female vanity for maternal solicitude."
"Anyway, you're a very poor compliment," threw in Major Durward, with an expressive glance at his wife's beautiful face. It was obvious that he worshipped her, and she smiled across at him, blushing adorably, just like a girl of sixteen.
Tim turned to Sara with a grimace.
"It's a great trial, Miss Tennant, to be blessed with two parents—"
"It's quite usual," interpolated Geoffrey mildly.
"Two parents," continued Tim, firmly ignoring him, "who are hopelessly, besottedly in love with each other. Instead of being—as I ought to be—the apple of their eye—of both their eyes—I'm merely the shadowy third."
Sara surveyed his goodly proportions consideringly.
"No one would have suspected it," she assured him; and Tim grinned appreciatively.
"If you stay with us long," he replied, "as I hope"—impressively—"you will, you'll soon perceive how utterly I am neglected. Perhaps"—his face brightening—"you may be moved to take pity on my solitude—quite frequently."
"Tim, stop being an idiot," interposed his mother placidly, holding out her cup, "and ask Miss Tennant to give me another lump of sugar."
The advent of the Durwards, breaking in upon her enforced solitude, helped very considerably to arouse Sara from the natural depression into which she had fallen after Patrick's death. With their absurdly large share of good looks, their charmingly obvious attachment to each other, and their enthusiastic, unconventional hospitality towards such an utter stranger as herself, devoid of any real claim upon them, she found the trio unexpectedly interesting and delightful. They had hailed her as a friend, and her frank, warm-hearted nature responded instantly, speedily according each of them a special niche in her regard. She felt as though Providence had suddenly endowed her with a whole family—"all complete and ready for use," as Tim cheerfully observed—and the reaction from the oppressive consciousness of being entirely alone in the world acted like a tonic.
The first brief sentiment of aversion which she had experienced towards Elisabeth melted like snow in sunshine under the daily charm of her companionship; and though the hyacinth eyes held always in their depths that strange suggestion of mystery, Sara grew to believe it must be merely some curious effect incidental to the colour and shape of the eyes themselves, rather than an indication of the soul that looked out of them.
There was something perennially captivating about Elisabeth. An atmosphere of romance enveloped her, engendering continuous interest and surmise, and Sara found it wholly impossible to view her from an ordinary prosaic standpoint. Occasionally she would recall the fact that Mrs. Durward was in reality a woman of over forty, mother of a grown-up son who, according to all the usages of custom, should be settling down into the drab and placid backwater of middle age, but she realized that the description went ludicrously wide of the mark.
There was nothing in the least drab about Elisabeth, nor would there ever be. She was full of colour and brilliance, reminding one of a great glowing-hearted rose in its prime.
Part of her charm, undoubtedly, lay in her attitude towards husband and son. She was still as romantically in love with Major Durward as any girl in her teens, and she adored Tim quite openly.
Inevitably, perhaps, there was a touch of the spoilt woman about her, since both men combined to indulge her in every whim. Nevertheless, there was nothing either small or petty in her willfulness. It was rather the superb, stately arrogance of a queen, and she was kindness itself to Sara.
But the largest share of credit in restoring the latter to a more normal and less highly strung condition was due to Tim, who gravitated towards her with the facility common to natural man when he finds himself for any length of time under the same roof with an attractive young person of the opposite sex. He had an engaging habit of appearing at the door of Sara's sitting-room with an ingratiating: "I say, may I come in for a yarn?" And, upon receiving permission, he would establish himself on the hearth-rug at her feet and proceed to prattle to her about his own affairs, much as a brother might have done to a favourite sister, and with an equal assurance that his confidences would be met with sympathetic interest.
"What are you going to do with yourself, Tim?" asked Sara one day, as he sprawled in blissful indolence on the great bearskin in front of her fire, pulling happily at a beloved old pipe.
"Do with myself?" he repeated. "What do you mean? I'm doing very comfortably just at present"—glancing round him appreciatively.
"I mean—what are you going to be? Aren't you going to enter any profession?"
Tim sat up suddenly, removing his pipe from his mouth.
"No," he said shortly.
"But why not? You can't slack about here for ever, doing nothing. I should have thought you would have gone into the Army, like your father."
His blue eyes hardened.
"That's what I wanted to do," he said gruffly. "But the mother wouldn't hear of it."
Sara could sense the pain in his suddenly roughened tones.
"But why? You'd make a splendid soldier, Tim"—eyeing his long length affectionately.
"I should have loved it," he said wistfully. "I wanted it more than anything. But mother worried so frightfully whenever I suggested the idea that I had to give it up. I'm to learn to be a landowner and squire and all that sort of tosh instead."
"But that could come later."
Tim shrugged his shoulders.
"Of course it could. But mother refused point-blank to let me go to Sandhurst. So now, unless a war crops up—and it doesn't look as though there's much chance of that!—I'm out of the running. But if it ever does, Sara"—he laid his hand eagerly on her knee—"I swear I'll be one of the first to volunteer. I was a fool to give in to the mother over the matter, only she was simply making herself ill about it, and, of course, I couldn't stand that."
Sara wondered why Mrs. Durward should have interfered to prevent her son from following what was obviously his natural bent. It would have seemed almost inevitable that, as a soldier's son, he should enter one or other of the Services, and instead, here he was, stranded in a little country backwater, simply eating his heart out. Mentally she determined to broach the subject to Elisabeth as soon as an opportunity presented itself; but for the moment she skillfully drew the conversation away from what was evidently a sore subject, and suggested that Tim should accompany her into Fallowdene, where she had an errand at the post office. He assented eagerly, with a shake of his broad shoulders as though to rid himself of the disagreeable burden of his thoughts.
From the window of his wife's sitting-room Major Durward watched the two as they started on their way to the village, evidently on the best of terms with one another, a placid smile spreading beneficently over his face as they vanished round the corner of the shrubbery.
"Anything in it, do you think?" he asked, seeing that Elisabeth's gaze had pursued the same course.
"It's impossible to say," she answered quietly. "Tim imagines himself to be falling in love, I don't doubt; but at twenty-two a boy imagines himself in love with half the girls he meets."
"I didn't," declared Geoffrey promptly. "I fell in love with you at the mature age of nineteen—and I never fell out again."
Elisabeth flashed him a charming smile.
"Perhaps Tim may follow in your footsteps, then," she suggested serenely.
"Well, would you be pleased?" persisted her husband, jerking his head explanatorily in the direction in which Sara and Tim had disappeared.
"I shall always be pleased with the woman who makes Tim happy," she answered simply.
Durward was silent a moment; then he returned to the attack.
"She's a very pretty young woman, don't you think?"
"Sara? No, I shouldn't call her exactly pretty. Her face is too thin, and strong, and eager. But she is a very uncommon type—like a black and white etching, and immensely attractive."
It was several days before Sara was able to introduce the topic of Tim's profession, but she contrived it one afternoon when she and Elisabeth were sitting together awaiting the return of the two men for tea.
"It will be profession enough for Tim to look after the property," Elisabeth made answer. "He can act as agent for his father to some extent, and relieve him of a great deal of necessary business that has to be transacted."
She spoke with a certain finality which made it difficult to pursue the subject, but Sara, remembering Tim's suddenly hard young eyes, persisted.
"It's a pity he cannot go into the Army—he's so keen on it," she suggested tentatively.
A curious change came over Elisabeth's face. It seemed to Sara as though a veil had descended, from behind which the inscrutable eyes were watching her warily. But the response was given lightly enough.
"Oh, one of the family in the Service is enough. I should see so little of my Tim if he became a soldier—only an occasional 'leave.'"
"He would make a very good soldier," said Sara. "To my mind, it's the finest profession in the world for any man."
"Do you think so?" Elisabeth spoke coldly. "There are many risks attached to it."
Sara experienced a revulsion of feeling; she had not expected Elisabeth to be of the fearful type of woman. Women of splendid physique and abounding vitality are rarely obsessed by craven apprehensions.
"I don't think the risks would count with Tim," she said warmly. "He has any amount of pluck." And then she stared at Elisabeth in amazement. A sudden haggardness had overspread the elder woman's face, the faint shell-pink that usually flushed her cheeks draining away and leaving them milk-white.
"Yes," she replied in stifled tones. "I don't suppose Tim's a coward. But"—more lightly—"I think I am. I—don't think I care for the Army as a profession. Tim is my only child," she added self-excusingly. "I can't let him run risks—of any kind."
As she spoke, an odd foreboding seized hold of Sara. It was as though the secret dread of something—she could not tell what—which held the mother had communicated itself to her.
She shivered. Then, the impression fading as quickly as it had come, she spoke defiantly, as if trying to reassure herself.
"There aren't many risks in these piping times of peace. Soldiers don't die in battle nowadays; they retire on a pension."
"Die in battle! Did you think I was afraid of that?" There was a sudden fierce contempt in Elisabeth's voice.
Sara looked at her with astonishment.
"Weren't you?" she said hesitatingly.
Elisabeth seemed about to make some passionate rejoinder. Then, all at once, she checked herself, and again Sara was conscious of that curiously secretive expression in her eyes, as though she were on guard.
"There are many things worse than death," she said evasively, and deliberately turned the conversation into other channels.
During the days that followed, Sara became aware of a faintly perceptible difference in her relations with Elisabeth. The latter was still just as charming as ever, but she seemed, in some inexplicable way, to have set a limit to their intimacy—defined a boundary line which she never intended to be overstepped.
It was as though she felt that she had allowed Sara to approach too nearly some inner sanctum which she had hitherto guarded securely from all intrusion, and now hastened to erect a barricade against a repetition of the offence.
More than once, lately, Sara had broached the subject of her impending departure from Barrow, only to have the suggestion incontinently brushed aside by Major Durward, who declared that he declined to discuss any such disagreeable topic. But now, sensitively conscious that she had troubled Elisabeth's peace in some way, she decided to make definite arrangements regarding her immediate future.
She was agreeably surprised, when she propounded her idea, to find Mrs. Durward seemed quite as unwilling to part with her as were both her husband and son. Apparently the alteration in her manner, with its curiously augmented reticence, was no indication of any personal antipathy, and Sara felt proportionately relieved, although somewhat mystified.
"We shall all miss you," averred Elisabeth, and there was absolute sincerity in her tones. "I don't see why you need be in such a hurry to run away from us." And Geoffrey and Tim chorused approval.
Sara beamed upon them all with humid eyes.
"It's dear of you to want me to stay with you," she declared. "But, don't you see, I must live my own life—have a roof-tree of my own? I can't just sit down comfortably in the shade of yours."
"Pushful young woman!" chaffed Geoffrey. "Well, I can see your mind is made up. So what are your plans? Let's hear them."
"I thought of taking rooms for a while with some really nice people—gentlefolk who wanted to take a paying guest—"
"Poor but honest, in fact," supplemented Geoffrey.
"Yes. You see"—smiling—"you people have spoiled me for living alone, and as I'm really rather a solitary individual, I must find a little niche for myself somewhere." She unfolded a letter she was holding. "I thought I should like to go near the sea—to some quite tiny country place at the back of beyond. And I think I've found just the thing. I saw an advertisement for a paying guest—of the female persuasion—so I replied to it, and I've just had an answer to my letter. It's from a doctor man—a Dr. Selwyn, at Monkshaven—who has an invalid wife and one daughter, and he writes such an original kind of epistle that I'm sure I should like him."
Geoffrey held out his hand for the letter, running his eyes down its contents, while his wife, receiving an assenting nod from Sara in response to her "May I?" looked over his shoulder.
Only Tim appeared to take no interest in the matter, but remained standing rather aloof, staring out of the window, his back to the trio grouped around the hearth.
"'Household . . . myself, wife, one daughter,'" muttered Geoffrey. "Um-um—'quarter of a mile from the sea'—um——'As you will have guessed from the fact of my advertising'"—here he began to read aloud—"'we are not too lavishly blessed with this world's goods. Our house is roomy and comfortable, though abominably furnished. But I can guarantee the climate, and there are plenty of nicer people than ourselves in the neighbourhood. It wouldn't be fitting for me to blow our own particular household trumpet—nor, to tell the truth, is it always calculated to give forth melodious sounds; but if the other considerations I have mentioned commend themselves to you, I suggest that you come down and make trial of us.'"