Sara looked troubled.
"Oh, but she must be here—somewhere," she insisted rather anxiously.
"Shall I see if I can find her for you?" suggested Trent stiffly.
Sara, sensing his wish to be gone and genuinely disturbed at Molly's non-appearance, acquiesced.
"I should be very glad if you would," she answered. Then turning to Miles, she went on: "I can't think where she can be. Somehow, Molly has become rather—difficult, lately."
"Don't look so distressed. It is only a little ebullition of la jeunesse."
Sara turned to him swiftly.
"Then you've noticed it, too—that she is different?"
"Lookers-on see most of the game, you know. And I'm essentially a looker-on." He bit back a quick sigh, and went on hastily: "But I don't think you need worry about our Molly's vagaries. She's too sound au fond to get into real mischief."
"She wouldn't mean to," conceded Sara. "But she is——" She hesitated.
"Youthfully irresponsible," suggested Miles. "Let it go at that."
Sara looked at him affectionately, reflecting that Trent's black cynicism made a striking foil to the serene and constant charity of Herrick's outlook.
"You always look for the best in people, Miles," she said appreciatively.
"I have to. Don't you see, people are my whole world. I'm cut off from everything else. If I didn't look for the best in them, I should want to kill myself. And I'm pretty lucky," he added, smiling humorously. "I generally find what I'm looking for."
At this moment Trent returned with the news that Molly was nowhere to be found. It was evident she had not come to Greenacres at all.
Sara rose, feeling oddly apprehensive.
"Then I think I shall go home and see if she has arrived there yet," she said. She smiled down at Miles. "Even irresponsibility needs checking—if carried too far."
The first person Sara encountered on her return to Sunnyside was Jane Crab, unmistakably bursting to impart some news.
"The doctor's going away, miss," she announced, flinging her bombshell without preliminary.
"Going away?" Sara's surprise was entirely gratifying, and Jane continued volubly—
"Yes, miss. A telegram came for him early in the afternoon, while he was out on his rounds, asking him to go to a friend who is lying at death's door, as you may say. And please, miss, Dr. Selwyn said he would be glad to see you as soon as you came in."
"Very well, I'll go to him at once. Where is Miss Molly? Has she come back yet?"
"Come and gone again, miss. The doctor asked her to send off a wire for him."
"I see." Sara nodded somewhat abstractly. She was still wondering confusedly why Molly had failed to put in any appearance at Greenacres. "What time did she come in?"
"About a quarter of an hour ago, miss. She missed the early train back from Oldhampton."
Sara's instant feeling of relief was tempered by a mild element of self-reproach. She had been agitating herself about nothing—allowing her uneasiness about Molly to become a perfect obsession, leading her into the wildest imaginings. Here had she been disquieting herself the entire afternoon because Molly had not turned up as arranged, and after all, the simple, commonplace explanation of the matter was that she had missed her train!
Smiling over the groundlessness of her fears, Sara hastened away to Selwyn's study, and found him, seated at his desk, scribbling some hurried motes concerning various cases among his patients for the enlightenment of the medical man who was taking charge of the practice during his absence.
"Oh, there you are, Sara!" he exclaimed, laying down his pen as she entered. "I'm glad you have come back before I go. I'm off in half-an-hour. Did Jane tell you?"
"Yes. I'm very sorry your friend is so ill."
Selwyn's face clouded over.
"I'd like to see him again," he answered simply. "We haven't met for some years—not since my wife's health brought me to Monkshaven—but we were good pals at one time, he and I. Luckily, I've been able to arrange with Dr. Mitchell to include my patients in his round, and if you'll take charge of everything here at home, Sara, I shall have nothing to worry about while I'm away."
"Of course I will. It's very nice of you to entrust your family to my care so confidently."
"Quite confidently," he replied. "I'm not afraid of anything going wrong if you're at the helm."
"How long do you expect to be away?" asked Sara presently.
"A couple of days at the outside. I hope to get back the day after to-morrow."
Denuded of Selwyn's big, kindly presence, the house seemed curiously silent. Even Jane Crab appeared to feel the effect of his absence, and strove less forcefully with her pots and pans—which undoubtedly made for an increase of peace and quiet—while Molly was frankly depressed, stealing restlessly in and out of the rooms like some haunting shadow.
"What on earth's the matter with you?" Sara asked her laughingly. "Hasn't your father ever been away from home before? You're wandering about like an uneasy spirit!"
"I am an uneasy spirit," responded Molly bluntly. "I feel as though I'd a cold coming on, and I always like Dad to doctor me when I'm ill."
"I can doctor a cold," affirmed Sara briskly. "Put your feet in hot water and mustard to-night and stay in bed to-morrow."
Molly considered the proposed remedies in silence.
"Perhaps I will stay in bed to-morrow," she said, at last, reluctantly. "Should you mind? We were going down to see the Lavender Lady, you remember."
"I'll go alone. Anyway"—smiling—"if you're safely tucked up in bed, I shall know you're not getting into any mischief while Doctor Dick's away! But very likely the hot water and mustard will put you all right."
"Perhaps it will," agreed Molly hopefully.
The next morning, however, found her in bed, snuffling and complaining of headache, and pathetically resigned to the idea of spending the day between the sheets. Obviously she was in no fit state to inflict her company on other people, so, in the afternoon, after settling her comfortably with a new novel and a box of cigarettes at her bedside, Sara took her solitary way to Rose Cottage.
There she found Garth Trent, sitting beside Herrick's couch and deep in an enthusiastic discussion of amateur photography. But, immediately on her entrance, the eager, interested expression died out of his face, and very shortly after tea he made his farewells, nor could any soft blandishments on the part of the Lavender Lady prevail upon him to remain longer.
Sara felt hurt and resentful. Since the day of the expedition to Devil's Hood Island, Trent had punctiliously avoided being in her company whenever circumstances would permit him to do so, and she was perfectly aware that it was her presence at Rose Cottage which was responsible for his early departure this afternoon.
A gleam of anger flickered in the black depths of her eyes as he shook hands.
"I'm sorry I've driven you away," she flashed at him beneath her breath, with a bitterness akin to his own. He made no answer, merely releasing her hand rather quickly, as though something in her words had flicked him on the raw.
"What a pity Mr. Trent had to leave so soon," remarked Miss Lavinia, with innocent regret, when he had gone. "I'm afraid we shall never persuade him to be really sociable, poor dear man! He seems a little moody to-day, don't you think?"—hesitating delicately.
"He's a bore!" burst out Sara succinctly.
Miles shook his head.
"No, I don't think that," he said. "But he's a very sick man. In my opinion, Trent's had his soul badly mauled at some time or other."
"He needn't advertise the fact, then," retorted Sara, unappeased. "We all get our share of ill-luck. Garth behaves as if he had the monopoly."
"There are some scars which can't be hidden," replied Miles quietly.
Sara smiled a little. There was never any evading Herrick's broad tolerance of human nature.
It was nearly an hour later when at last she took her way homewards, carrying in her heart, in spite of herself, something of the gentle serenity that seemed to be a part of the very atmosphere at Rose Cottage.
Outside, the calm and fragrance of a June evening awaited her. Little, delicate, sweet-smelling airs floated over the tops of the hedges from the fields beyond, and now and then a few stray notes of a blackbird's song stole out from a plantation near at hand, breaking off suddenly and dying down into drowsy, contented little cluckings and twitterings.
Across the bay the sun was dipping towards the horizon, flinging along the face of the waters great shafts of lambent gold and orange, that split into a thousand particles of shimmering light as the ripples caught them up and played with them, and finally tossed them back again to the sun from the shining curve of a wave's sleek side.
It was all very tranquil and pleasant, and Sara strolled leisurely along, soothed into a half-waking dream by the peaceful influences of the moment. Even the manifold perplexities and tangles of life seemed to recede and diminish in importance at the touch of old Mother Nature's comforting hand. After all, there was much, very much, that was beautiful and pleasant still left to enjoy.
It is generally at moments like these, when we are sinking into a placid quiescence of endurance, that Fate sees fit to prod us into a more active frame of mind.
In this particular instance destiny manifested itself in the unassuming form of Black Brady, who slid suddenly down from the roadside hedge, amid a crackling of branches and rattle of rubble, and appeared in front of Sara's astonished eyes just as she was nearing home.
"Beg pardon, miss"—Brady tugged at a forelock of curly black hair—"I was just on me way to your place."
"To Sunnyside? Why, is Mrs. Brady ill again?" asked Sara kindly.
"No, miss, thank you, she's doing nicely." He paused a moment as though at a loss how to continue. Then he burst out: "It's about Miss Molly—the doctor bein' away and all."
"About Miss Molly?" Sara felt a sudden clutch at her heart. "What do you mean? Quick, Brady, what is it?"
"Well, miss, I've just seed 'er go off 'long o' Mr. Kent in his big motor-car. They took the London road, and"—here Brady shuffled his feet with much embarrassment—"seein' as Mr. Kent's a married man, I'll be bound he's up to no good wi' Miss Molly."
Sara could have stamped with vexation. The little fool—oh! The utter little fool—to go off joy-riding in an evening like that! A break-down of any kind, with a consequent delay in returning, and all Monkshaven would be buzzing with the tale!
For the moment, however, there was nothing to be done except to put Black Brady in his place and pray for Molly's speedy return.
"Well, Brady," she said coldly, "I imagine Mr. Kent's a good enough driver to bring Miss Selwyn back safely. I don't think there's anything to worry about."
Brady stared at her out of his sullen eyes.
"You haven't understood, miss," he said doggedly. "Mr. Kent isn't for bringing Miss Molly back again. They'd their luggage along wi' 'em in the car, and Mr. Kent, he stopped at the 'Cliff' to have the tank filled up and took a matter of another half-dozen cans o' petrol with 'im."
In an instant the whole dreadful significance of the thing leaped into Sara's mind. Molly had bolted—run away with Lester Kent!
It was easy enough now, in the flashlight kindled by Brady's slow, inexorable summing up of detail, to see the drift of recent happenings, the meaning of each small, disconcerting fact that added a fresh link to the chain of probability.
Molly's unwonted secretiveness; her strange, uncertain moods; her embarrassment at finding she was expected at Greenacres when she had presumably agreed to meet Lester Kent in Oldhampton; and, last of all, the sudden "cold" which had developed coincidentally with her father's absence from home and which had secured her freedom from any kind of supervision for the afternoon. And the opportunity of clinching arrangements—probably already planned and dependent only on a convenient moment—had been provided by her errand to the post office to send off her father's telegram—it being as easy to send two telegrams as one.
The colour ebbed slowly from Sara's face as full realization dawned upon her, and she swayed a little where she stood. With rough kindliness Brady stretched out a grimy hand and steadied her.
"'Ere, don't' take on, miss. They won't get very far. I didn't, so to speak, fill the petrol tank"—with a grin—"and there ain't more than two o' they cans I slipped aboard the car as 'olds more'n air. The rest was empties"—the grin widened enjoyably—"which I shoved in well to the back. Mr. Kent won't travel eighty miles afore 'e calls a 'alt, I reckon."
Sara looked at Brady's cunning, kindly face almost with affection.
"Why did you do that?" she asked swiftly.
"I've owed Mr. Lester Kent summat these three years," he answered complacently. "And I never forgets to pay back. I owed you summat, too, Miss Tennant. I haven't forgot how you spoke up for me when I was catched poachin'."
Sara held out her hand to him impulsively, and Brady sheepishly extended his own grubby paw to meet it.
"You've more than paid me back, Brady," she said warmly. "Thank you."
Turning away, she hurried up the road, leaving Brady staring alternately at his right hand and at her receding figure.
"She's rare gentry, is Miss Tennant," he remarked with conviction, and then slouched off to drink himself blind at "The Jolly Sailorman." Black Brady was, after all, only an inexplicable bundle of good and bad impulses—very much like his betters.
Arrived at the house, Sara fled breathlessly upstairs to Molly's room. Jane Crab was standing in the middle of it, staring dazedly at all the evidences of a hasty departure which surrounded her—an overturned chair here, an empty hat-box there, drawers pulled out, and clothes tossed heedlessly about in every direction. In her hand she held a chemist's parcel, neatly sealed and labeled; she was twisting it round and round in her trembling, gnarled old fingers.
At the sound of Sara's entrance, she turned with an exclamation of relief.
"Oh, Miss Sara! I'm main glad you've come! Whatever's happened? Miss Molly was here in bed not three parts of an hour ago!" Then, her boot-button eyes still roving round the room, she made a sudden dart towards the dressing-table. "Here, miss, 'tis a note she's left for you!" she exclaimed, snatching it up and thrusting it into Sara's hands.
Written in Molly's big, sprawling, childish hand, the note was a pathetic mixture of confession and apology—
"I feel a perfect pig, Sara mine, leaving you behind to face Father, but it was my only chance of getting away, as I know Dad would have refused to let me marry for years and years. He never will realize that I'm grown-up. And Lester and I couldn't wait all that time.
"I felt an awful fraud last night, letting you fuss over my supposed 'cold,' you dear thing. Do forgive me. And you must come and stay with us the minute we get back from our honeymoon. We are to be married to-morrow morning. "—MOLLY.
"P.S.—Don't worry—it's all quite proper and respectable. I'm to go straight to the house of one of Lester's sisters in London.
"P.P.S.—I'm frantically happy."
Sara's eyes were wet when she finished the perusal of the hastily scribbled letter. "We are to be married to-morrow morning!" The blind, pathetic confidence of it! And if Black Brady had spoken the truth, if Lester Kent were already a married man, to-morrow morning would convert the trusting, wayward baby of a woman, with her adorable inconsistencies and her big, generous heart, into something Sara dared not contemplate. The thought of the look in those brown-gold eyes, when Molly should know the truth, brought a lump into her throat.
She turned to Jane Crab.
"Listen to me, Jane," she said tersely. "Miss Molly's run away with Mr. Lester Kent. She thinks he's going to marry her. But he can't—he's married already——"
"Sakes alive!" Just that one brief exclamation, and then suddenly Jane's lower lip began to work convulsively, and two tears squeezed themselves out of her little eyes, and her whole face puckered up like a baby's.
Sara caught her by the arm and shook her.
"Don't cry!" she said vehemently. "You haven't time! We've got to save her—we've got to get her back before any one knows. Do you understand? Stop crying at once!"
Jane reacted promptly to the fierce imperative, and sniffingly choked back her tears. Suddenly her eyes fell on the little package from the chemist which she still held clutched in her hand.
"The artfulness of her!" she ejaculated indignantly. "Asking me to go along to the chemist's and bring her back some aspirin for her headache! And me, like a fool, suspecting nothing, off I goes! There's the stuff!"—viciously flinging the chemist's parcel on to the floor. "Eh! Miss Molly'll have more than a headache to face, I'm thinking!"
"But she mustn't, Jane! We've got to get her back, somehow."
Though Sara spoke with such assured conviction, she was inwardly racked with anxiety. What could they do—two forlorn women? And to whom could they turn for help? Miles? He was lame. He was no abler to help than they themselves. And Selwyn was away, out of reach!
"We must get her back," she repeated doggedly.
"And how, may I ask, Miss Sara?" inquired Jane bitterly. "Be you goin' to run after the motor-car, mayhap?"
For a moment Sara was silent. The sarcastic query had set the spark to the tinder, and now she was thinking rapidly, some semblance of a plan emerging at last from the chaotic turmoil of her mind.
Garth Trent! He could help her! He had a car—Sara did not know its pace, but she was certain Trent could be trusted to get every ounce out of it that was possible. Between them—he and she—they would bring Molly back to safety!
She turned swiftly to Jane Crab.
"Come to the stable and help me put in the Doctor's pony, Jane. You know how, don't you?"
"Yes, miss, I've helped the master many a time. But you ain't going to catch no motor with old Toby, Miss Sara."
"No, I don't expect to. I'm gong to drive across to Far End. Mr. Trent will help us. Don't worry, Jane"—as the two made their way to the stable and Jane strangled a sob—"we'll bring Miss Molly back. And, listen! Mrs. Selwyn isn't to hear a word of this. Do you understand? If she asks you anything, tell her that Miss Molly and I are dining out. That'll be true enough, too," added Sara grimly, "if we dine at all!"
Jane sniffed, and swallowed loudly.
"Yes, miss," she said submissively. "You and Miss Molly are dining out. I won't forget."
THEY WHO PURSUED
Selwyn's pony had rarely before found himself hustled along at the pace at which Sara drove him. She let him take his time up the hills, knowing, as every good horse-woman knows, that if you press your horse against the hill, he will only flag the sooner and that you will lose more than you gain. But down the hills and along the flat, Sara, with hands and whip, kept Toby going at an amazing pace. Perhaps something of her own urgency communicated itself to the good-hearted beast, for he certainly made a great effort and brought her to Far End in a shorter time than she had deemed possible.
Exactly as she pulled him to a standstill, the front door opened and Garth himself appeared. He had heard the unwonted sound of wheels on the drive, and now, as he recognized his late visitor, an expression of extreme surprise crossed his face.
"Miss Tennant!" he exclaimed in astonished tones.
"Yes. Can your man take my pony? And, please may I come in? I—I must see you alone for a few minutes."
Trent glanced at her searchingly as his ear caught the note of strain in her voice.
Summoning Judson to take charge of the pony and trap, he led the way into the comfortable, old fashioned hall and wheeled forward an armchair.
"Sit down," he said composedly. "Now"—as she obeyed—"tell me what is the matter."
His manner held a quiet friendliness. The chill indifference he had accorded her of late—even earlier that same day at Rose Cottage—had vanished, and his curiously bright eyes regarded her with sympathetic interest.
To the man as he appeared at the moment, it was no difficult matter for Sara to unburden her heart, and a few minutes later he was in possession of all the facts concerning Molly's flight.
"I don't know whether Mr. Kent is really a married man or not," she added in conclusion. "Brady declares that he is."
"He is," replied Trent curtly. "Very much married. His first wife divorced him, and, since then, he has married again."
"Oh——!" Sara half-rose from her seat, her face blanching. Not till that moment did she realize how much in her inmost heart she had been relying on the hope that Garth might be able to contradict Black Brady's statement.
"Don't worry." Garth laid his hands on her shoulders and pushed her gently back into her chair again. "Don't worry. Thanks to Brady's stroke of genius about the petrol—I've evidently underestimated the man's good points—I think I can promise you that you shall have Miss Molly safely back at Sunnyside in the course of a few hours. That is, if you are willing to trust me in the matter."
"Of course I will trust you," she answered simply. Somehow it seemed as though a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders since she had confided her trouble to Garth.
"Thank you," he said quietly. "Now, while Judson gets the car round, you must have a glass of wine."
"No—oh, no!"—hastily—"I don't want anything."
"Allow me to know better than you do in this case," he replied, smiling.
He left the room, presently returning with a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses.
"Oh, please—I'd so much rather start at once," she protested. "I really don't want anything. Do let us hurry!"
"I'm sorry, but I've no intention of starting until you have drunk this"—filling and handing one of the glasses to her.
Rather than waste time in further argument, she accepted it, only to find that her hand was shaking uncontrollably, so that the edge of the glass chattered against her teeth.
"I—I can't!" she gasped helplessly. Now that she had shared her burden of responsibility, the demands of the last half-hour's anxiety and strain were making themselves felt.
With a swift movement Garth took the glass from her, and, supporting her with his other arm, held it to her lips.
"Drink it down," he said authoritatively. Then, as she paused: "All of it!"
In a few minutes the wine had brought the colour back to her face, and she felt more like herself again.
"I'm all right, now," she said. "I'm sorry I was such a fool. But—but this business about Molly has given me rather a shock, I suppose."
"Naturally. Now, if you're ready, we'll make a start."
She rose, and he surveyed her slight figure in its thin muslin gown with some amusement.
"Not quite a suitable costume for motoring by night," he remarked. He picked up one of the two big fur coats Mrs. Judson had brought into the room. "Here, put this on." Then, when he had fastened it round her and turned the collar up about her neck, he stood looking at her for a moment in silence.
The whole of her slender form was hidden beneath the voluminous folds of the big coat, which had been originally designed to fit Garth's own proportions, and against the high fur collar her delicate cameo face, with its white skin and scarlet lips and its sombre, night-black eyes, emerged like some vivid flower from its sheath.
Trent laughed shortly.
"Beauty—in the garment of the Beast," he commented. Then, briskly: "Come along. Judson will have the car ready by now."
Sara stepped into the car and he tucked the rugs carefully round her. Then, directing Judson to drive the Selwyn pony and trap back to Sunnyside, he took his place at the wheel and the car slid noiselessly away down the broad drive.
"The surprising discovery of the doctor's pony and trap at Far End to-morrow morning would require explanation," he observed grimly to Sara. She blessed his thoughtfulness.
"What about Judson?" she asked. "Is he reliable? Or do you think he will—talk?"
"Judson," replied Garth, "has been in my service long enough to know the meaning of the word 'discretion.'"
Trent drove the car steadily enough through town, but, as soon as they emerged on to the great London main road, he let her out and they swept rapidly along through the lingering summer twilight.
"Are you nervous?" he asked. "Do you mind forty or fifty miles an hour when we've a clear stretch ahead of us?"
"Eighty, if you like," she replied succinctly.
She felt the car leap forward like a living thing beneath them as it gathered speed.
"Do you think—is it possible that we can overtake them?" she asked anxiously.
"It's got to be done," he answered, and she was conscious of the quiet driving-force that lay behind the speech—the stubborn resolution of the man which she had begun to recognize as his most dominant characteristic.
She wondered, as she had so often wondered before, whether any one had ever yet succeeded in turning Garth Trent aside from his set purpose, whatever it might chance to be. She could not imagine his yielding to either threats or persuasions. However much it might cost him, he would carry out his intention to the bitter end, even though its fulfillment might involve the shattering of the whole significance of life.
"Besides,"—his voice cut across the familiar tenor of her thoughts—"Kent will probably stop to dine at some hotel en route. We shan't. We'll feed as we go."
"Oh—h!" A gasp of horrified recollection escaped her. "I never thought of it! Of course you've had no dinner!"
He laughed. "Have you?" he asked amusedly.
"No, but that's different."
"Well, we'll even matters up by having some sandwiches together presently. Mrs. Judson has packed some in."
Sara was silent, inwardly dwelling on the fact that no least detail ever seemed to escape Garth's attention. Even in the hurry of their departure, and with the whole scheme of Molly's rescue to envisage, he had yet found time to order due provision for the journey.
An hour later they pulled up at the principal hotel of the first big town on the route, and Garth elicited the fact that a car answering to the description of Lester Kent's had stopped there, but only for a bare ten minutes which had enabled its occupants to snatch a hasty meal.
"They've been here and gone straight on," he reported to Sara. "Evidently Kent's taking no chances"—grimly. And a moment later they were on their way once more.
Dusk deepened into dark, and the car's great headlights cut out a blazing track of gold in front of them as they rushed along the pale ribbon of road that stretched ahead—mile after interminable mile.
On either side, dark woods merged into the deeper darkness of the encroaching night, seeming to slip past them like some ghostly marching army as the car tore its way between the ranks of shadowy trunks. Overhead, a few stars crept out, puncturing the expanse of darkening sky—pale, tremulous sparks of light in contrast with the steady, warmly golden glow that streamed from the lights of the car.
Presently Garth slackened speed.
"Why are you stopping?" Sara's voice, shrilling a little with anxiety, came to him out of the darkness.
"I'm not stopping. I'm only slowing down a bit, because I think it's quite feeding time. Do you mind opening those two leather attachments fixed in front of you? Such nectar and ambrosia as Mrs. Judson has provided is in there."
Sara leaned forward, and unbuckling the lid of a flattish leather case which, together with another containing a flask, was slung just opposite her, withdrew from within it a silver sandwich-box. She snapped open the lid and proffered the box to Garth.
"Help yourself. And—do you mind"—he spoke a little uncertainly and the darkness hid the expression of his face from her—"handing me my share—in pieces suitable for human consumption? This is a bad bit of road, and I want both hands for driving the car."
In silence Sara broke the sandwiches and fed him, piece by piece, while he bent over the wheel, driving steadily onward.
The little, intimate action sent a curious thrill through her. It seemed in some way to draw them together, effacing the memory of those weeks of bitter indifference which lay behind them. Such a thing would have been grotesquely impossible of performance in the atmosphere of studied formality supplied by their estrangement, and Sara smiled a little to herself under cover of the darkness.
"One more mouthful!" she announced as she halved the last sandwich.
An instant later she felt his lips brush her fingers in a sudden, burning kiss, and she withdrew her hand as though stung.
She was tingling from head to foot, every nerve of her a-thrill, and for a moment she felt as though she hated him. He had been so kind, so friendly, so essentially the good comrade in this crisis occasioned by Molly's flight, and now he had spoilt it all—playing the lover once more when he had shown her clearly that he meant nothing by it.
Apparently he sensed her attitude—the quick withdrawal of spirit which had accompanied the more physical retreat.
"Forgive me!" he said, rather low. "I won't offend again."
She made no answer, and presently she felt the car sliding slowly to a standstill. A sudden panic assailed her.
"What is it? What are you doing?" she asked, quick fear in her sharply spoken question.
He laughed shortly.
"You needn't be afraid—" he began.
"I'm not!" she interpolated hastily.
"Excuse me," he said drily, "but you are. You don't trust me in the slightest degree. Well"—she could guess, rather than see, the shrug which accompanied the words—"I can't blame you. It's my own fault, I suppose."
He braked the car, and she quivered to a dead stop, throbbing like a live thing in the darkness.
"You must forgive me for being so material," he went on composedly, "but I want a drink, and I'm not acrobat enough to manage that, even with your help, while we're doing thirty miles an hour."
He lifted out the flask, and, when they had both drunk, Sara meekly took it from him and proceeded to adjust the screw cap and fit the silver cup back into its place over the lower half of the flask.
Simultaneously she felt the car begin to move forward, and then, quite how it happened she never knew, but, fumbling in the darkness, she contrived to knock the cup sharply against the flask, and it flew out of her hand and over the side of the car. Impulsively she leaned out, trying to snatch it back as it fell, and, in the same instant, something seemed to give way, and she felt herself hurled forward into space. The earth rushed up to meet her, a sound as of many waters roared in her ears, and then the blank darkness of unconsciousness swallowed her up.
THE REVELATION OF THE NIGHT
"Thank God, she's only stunned!"
The words, percolating slowly through the thick, blankety mist that seemed to have closed about her, impressed themselves on Sara's mind with a vague, confused suggestion of their pertinence. It was as though some one—she wasn't quite sure who—had suddenly given voice to her own immediate sensation of relief.
At first she could not imagine for what reason she should feel so specially grateful and relieved. Gradually, however, the mists began to clear away and recollection of a kind returned to her.
She remembered dropping something—she couldn't recall precisely what it was that she had dropped, but she knew she had made a wild clutch at it and tried to save it as it fell. Then—she was remembering more distinctly now—something against which she had been leaning—she couldn't recall what that was, either—gave way suddenly, and for the fraction of a second she had known she was going to fall and be killed, or, at the least, horribly hurt and mutilated.
And now, it seemed, she had not been hurt at all! She was in no pain; only her head felt unaccountably heavy. But for that, she was really very comfortable. Some one was holding her—it was almost like lying back in a chair—and against her cheek she could feel the soft warmth of fur.
It was Garth's voice, quite close to her ear. He was holding her in his arms.
Ah! She knew now! They were on the island together, and he had just asked her if she cared. Of course she cared! It was sheer happiness to lie in his arms, with closed eyes, and hear his voice—that deep, unhappy voice of his—grow suddenly so incredibly soft and tender.
"You're mine, now, sweet! Mine to hold just for this once, dear of my heart!"
No, that couldn't be right, after all, because it wasn't Garth who loved her. He had only pretended to care for her by way of amusing himself. It must be Tim who was talking to her—Tim, whom she was going to marry.
Then, suddenly, the mists cleared quite away, and Sara came back to full consciousness and to the knowledge of where she was and of what had happened.
Her first instinct, to open her eyes and speak, was checked by a swift, unexpected movement on the part of Garth. All at once, he had gathered her up into his arms, and, holding her face pressed close against his own, was pouring into her ears a torrent of burning, passionate words of love—love triumphant, worshipping, agonizing, and last of all, brokenly, desperately abandoning all right or claim.
"And I've got to live without you . . . die without you . . . My God, it's hard!"
In the darkness and solitude of the night—as he believed, alone with the unconscious form of the woman he loved in his arms—Garth bared his very soul. There was nothing hidden any longer, and Sara knew at last that even as she herself loved, so was she loved again.
THE JOURNEY'S END
Sara stirred a little and opened her eyes. Deep within herself she was ashamed of those brief moments of assumed unconsciousness—those moments which had shown her a strong man's soul stripped naked of all pride and subterfuge—his heart and soul as he alone knew them.
But, none the less, she felt gloriously happy. Nothing could ever hurt her badly again. Garth loved her!
Since, for some reason, he himself would never have drawn aside the veil and let her know the truth, she was glad—glad that she had peered unbidden through the rent which the stress of the moment had torn in his iron self-command and reticence. Just as she had revealed herself to him on the island, in a moment of equal strain, so he had now revealed himself to her, and they were quits.
"I'm all right," she announced, struggling into a sitting position. "I'm not hurt."
"Sit still a minute, while I fetch you some brandy from the car." Garth spoke in a curiously controlled voice.
He was back again in a moment, and the raw spirit made her catch her breath as it trickled down her throat.
"Thank God we had only just begun to move," he said. "Otherwise you must have been half-killed."
"What happened?" she asked curiously. "How did I fall out?"
"The door came open. That damned fool, Judson, didn't shut it properly. Are you sure you're not hurt?"
"Quite sure. My head aches rather."
"That's very probable. You were stunned for a minute or two."
Suddenly the recollection of their errand returned to her.
"Molly! Good Heavens, how much time have we wasted? How long has this silly business taken?" she demanded, in a frenzy of apprehension.
Garth surveyed her oddly in the glow of one of the car's side-lights, which he had carried back with him when he fetched the brandy.
"Five minutes, I should think," he said, adding under his breath: "Or half eternity!"
"Five minutes! Is that all? Then do let's hurry on."
She took a few steps in the direction of the car, then stopped and wavered. She felt curiously shaky, and her legs seemed as though they did not belong to her.
In a moment Garth was at her side, and had lifted her up in his arms. He carried her swiftly across the few yards that intervened between them and the car, and settled her gently into her seat.
"Do you feel fit to go on?" he asked.
"Of course I do. We must—bring Molly back." Even her voice refused to obey the dictates of her brain, and quavered weakly.
"Well, try to rest a little. Don't talk, and perhaps you'll go to sleep."
He restarted the car, and, taking his seat once more at the wheel, drove on at a smooth and easy pace.
Sara leaned back in silence at his side, conscious of a feeling of utter lassitude. In spite of her anxiety about Molly, a curious contentment had stolen over her. The long strain of the past weeks had ended—ended in the knowledge that Garth loved her, and nothing else seemed to matter very much. Moreover, she was physically exhausted. Her fall had shaken her badly, and she wanted nothing better than to lie back quietly against the padded cushions of the car, lulled by the rhythmic throb of the engine, and glide on through the night indefinitely, knowing that Garth was there, close to her, all the time.
Presently her quiet, even breathing told that she slept, and Garth, stooping over her to make sure, accelerated the speed, and soon the car shot forward through the darkness at a pace which none but a driver very certain of his skill would have dared to attempt.
When, an hour later, Sara awoke, she felt amazingly refreshed. Only a slight headache remained to remind her of her recent accident.
"Where are we?" she asked eagerly. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Feeling better?" queried Garth, reassured by the stronger note in her voice.
"Quite all right, thanks. But tell me where we are?"
"Nearly at our journey's end, I take it," he replied grimly, suddenly slackening speed. "There's a stationary car ahead there on the left, do you see? That will be our friends, I expect, held up by petrol shortage, thanks to Jim Brady."
Sara peered ahead, and on the edge of the broad ribbon of light that stretched in front of them she could discern a big car, drawn up to one side of the road, its headlights shut off, its side-lights glimmering warningly against its dark bulk.
Exactly as they drew level with it, Garth pulled up to a standstill. Then a muttered curse escaped him, and simultaneously Sara gave vent to an exclamation of dismay. The car was empty.
Garth sprang out and flashed a lamp over the derelict.
"Yes," he said, "that's Kent's car right enough."
Sara's heart sank.
"What can have become of them?" she exclaimed. She glanced round her as though she half suspected that Kent and Molly might be hiding by the roadside.
Meanwhile Garth had peered into the tank and was examining the petrol cans stowed away in the back of the deserted car.
"Run dry!" he announced, coming back to his own car. "That's what has happened."
"And what can we do now?" asked Sara despondently.
He laughed a little.
"Faint heart!" he chided. "What can we do now? Why, ask ourselves what Kent would naturally have done when he found himself landed high and dry?"
"I don't know what he could do—in the middle of nowhere?" she answered doubtfully.
"Only we don't happen to be in the middle of nowhere! We're just about a couple of miles from a market town where abides a nice little inn whence petrol can be obtained. Kent and Miss Molly have doubtless trudged there on foot, and wakened up mine host, and they'll hire a trap and drive back with a fresh supply of oil. By Jove!"—with a grim laugh—"How Kent must have cursed when he discovered the trick Brady played on him!"
Ten minutes later, leaving their car outside, Garth and Sara walked boldly up to the inn of which he had spoken. The door stood open, and a light was burning in the coffee-room. Evidently some one had just arrived.
Garth glanced into the room, then, standing back, he motioned Sara to enter.
Sara stepped quickly over the threshold and then paused, swept by an infinite compassion and tenderness almost maternal in its solicitude.
Molly was sitting hunched up in a chair, her face half hidden against her arm, every drooping line of her slight young figure bespeaking weariness. She had taken off her hat and tossed it on to the table, and now she had dropped into a brief, uneasy slumber born of sheer fatigue and excitement.
At the sound of Sara's voice she opened big, startled eyes and stared incredulously.
Sara moved swiftly to her.
"Molly dear," she said, "I've come to take you home."
At that Molly started up, broad awake in an instant.
"You? How did you come here?" she stammered. Then, realization waking in her eyes: "But I'm not coming back with you. We've only stopped for petrol. Lester's outside, somewhere, seeing about it now. We're driving back to the car."
"Yes, I know. But you're not going on with Mr. Kent"—very gently—"you're coming home with us."
Molly drew herself up, flaring passionate young defiance, talking glibly of love, and marriage, and living her own life—all the beautiful, romantic nonsense that comes so readily to the soft lips of youth, the beckoning rose and gold of sunrise—and of mirage—which is all youth's untrained eyes can see.
Sara was getting desperate. The time was flying. At any moment Kent might return. Garth signaled to her from the doorway.
"You must tell her," he said gruffly. "If Kent returns before we go, we shall have a scene. Get her away quick."
Sara nodded. Then she came back to Molly's side.
"My dear," she said pitifully. "You can never marry Lester Kent, because—because he has a wife already."
"I don't believe it!" The swift denial leaped from Molly's lips.
But she did believe it, nevertheless. No one who knew Sara could have looked into her eyes at that moment and doubted that she was speaking not only what she believed to be, but what she knew to be, the ugly truth.
Suddenly Molly crumpled up. As, between them, Garth and Sara hurried her away to the car, there was no longer anything of the regal young goddess about her. She was just a child—a tired, frightened child whose eyes had been suddenly opened to the quicksands whereon her feet were set, and, like a child, she turned instinctively and clung to the dear, familiar people from home, who were mercifully at hand to shield her when her whole world had suddenly grown new and strange and very terrible. . . .
On, on through the night roared the big car, with Garth bending low over the wheel in front, while, in the back-seat Molly huddled forlornly into the curve of Sara's arm.
A few questions had elicited the whole foolish story of Lester Kent's infatuation, and of the steps he had taken to enmesh poor simple-hearted Molly in the toils—first, by lending her money, then, when he found that the loan had scared her, by buying her pictures and surrounding her with an atmosphere of adulation which momentarily blinded her from forming any genuine estimate either of the value of his criticism or of the sincerity of his desire to purchase.
Once the head resting against Sara's shoulder was lifted, and a wistfully incredulous voice asked, very low—
"You are sure he is married, Sara,—quite sure?"
"Quite sure, Molly," came the answer.
And later, as they were nearing home, Molly's hardly-bought philosophy of life revealed itself in the brief comment: "It's very easy to make a fool of oneself."
"Probably Mr. Kent has found that out—by this time," replied Sara with a grim flash of humour.
A faint, involuntary chuckle in response premised that ultimately Molly might be able to take a less despondent view of the night's proceedings.
It was between two and three in the morning when at length the travelers climbed stiffly out of the car at the gateway of Sunnyside and made their way up the little tiled path that led to the front door. The latter opened noiselessly at their approach and Jane, who had evidently been watching for them, stood on the threshold.
Her small, beady eyes were red-rimmed with sleeplessness—and with the slow, difficult tears that now and again had overflowed as hour after hour crawled by, bringing no sign of the wanderers' return—and the shadows of fatigue that had hollowed her weather-beaten cheeks wrung a sympathetic pang from Sara's heart as she realized what those long, inactive hours of helpless anxiety must have meant to the faithful soul.
Jane's glance flew to the drooping, willowy figure clinging to Garth's arm.
"My lamb! . . . Oh! Miss Molly dear, they've brought 'ee back!" Impulsively she caught hold of Garth's coat-sleeve. "Thank God you've brought them back, sir, and now there's none as need ever know aught but that they've been in their beds all the blessed night!" Her lips were shaking, drawn down at the corners like those of a distressed child, but her harsh old voice quivered triumphantly.
A very kindly gleam showed itself in Garth's dark face as he patted the rough, red hand that clutched his coat-sleeve.
"Yes, I've brought them back safely," he said. "Put them to bed, Jane. Miss Sara's fallen out of the car and Miss Molly has tumbled out of heaven, so they're both feeling pretty sore."
But Sara's soreness was far the easier to bear, since it was purely physical. As she lay in bed, at last, utterly weary and exhausted, the recollection of all the horror and anxiety that had followed upon the discovery of Molly's flight fell away from her, and she was only conscious that had it not been for that wild night-ride which Molly's danger had compelled, she would never have known that Garth loved her.
So, out of evil, had come good; out of black darkness had been born the exquisite clear shining of the dawn.
THE SECOND BEST
Sara laid down her pen and very soberly re-read the letter she had just written. It was to Tim Durward, telling him the engagement between them must be at an end, and its accomplishment had been a matter of sore embarrassment and mental struggle. Sara hated giving pain, and she knew that this letter, taking from Tim all—and it was so painfully little—that she had ever given him, must bring very bitter pain to the man to whom, as friend and comrade, she was deeply attached.
It was barely a month since she had promised to marry him, and it was a difficult, ungracious task, and very open to misapprehension, to write and rescind that promise.
Yet it was characteristic of Sara that no other alternative presented itself to her. Now that she was sure Garth cared for her—whether their mutual love must remain for ever unfulfilled, unconsummated, or not—she knew that she could never give herself to any other man.
She folded and sealed the letter, and then sat quietly contemplating the consequences that it might entail. Almost inevitably it would mean a complete estrangement from the Durwards. Elisabeth would be very unlikely ever to forgive her for her treatment of Tim; even kindly hearted Major Durward could not but feel sore about it; and since Garth had not asked her to marry him—and showed no disposition to do any such thing—they would almost certainly fail to understand or sympathize with her point of view.
Sara sighed as she dropped her missive into the letter-box. It meant an end to the pleasant and delightful friendship which had come into her life just at the time when Patrick Lovell's death had left it very empty and desolate.
Two days of suspense ensued while she restlessly awaited Tim's reply. Then, on the third day, he came himself, his eyes incredulous, his face showing traces of the white night her letter had cost him.
He was very gentle with her. There was no bitterness or upbraiding, and he suffered her explanation with a grave patience that hurt her more than any reproaches he could have uttered.
"I believed it was only I who cared, Tim," she told him. "And so I felt free to give you what you wanted—to be your wife, if you cared to take me, knowing I had no love to give. I thought"—she faltered a little—"that I might as well make someone happy! But now that I know he loves me as I love him, I couldn't marry any one else, could I?"
"And are you going to marry him—this man you love?"
"I don't know. He has not asked me to marry him."
"Perhaps he is married already?"
Sara met his eyes frankly.
"I don't know even that."
Tim made a fierce gesture of impatience.
"Is it playing fair—to keep you in ignorance like that?" he demanded.
Sara laughed suddenly.
"Perhaps not. But somehow I don't mind. I am sure he must have a good reason—or else"—with a flash of humour—"some silly man's reason that won't be any obstacle at all!"
"Supposing"—Tim bent over her, his face rather white—"supposing you find—later on—that there is some real obstacle—that he can't marry you, would you come to me—then, Sara?"
She shook her head.
"No, Tim, not now. Don't you see, now that I know he cares for me—everything is altered. I'm not free, now. In a way, I belong to him. Oh! How can I explain? Even though we may never marry, there is a faithfulness of the spirit, Tim. It's—it's the biggest part of love, really——"
She broke off, and presently she felt Tim's hands on her shoulders.
"I think I understand, dear," he said gently. "It's just what I should expect of you. It means the end of everything—everything that matters for me. But—somehow—I would not have you otherwise."
He did not stay very long after that. They talked together a little, promising each other that their friendship should still remain unbroken and unspoilt.
"For," as Tim said, "if I cannot have the best that the world can give—your love, Sara, I need not lose the second best—which is your friendship."
And Sara, watching him from the window as he strode away down the little tiled path, wondered why love comes so often bearing roses in one hand and a sharp goad in the other.
THE PITILESS ALTAR
Elisabeth was pacing restlessly up and down the broad, flagged terrace at Barrow, impatiently awaiting Tim's return from Monkshaven.
She knew his errand there. He had scarcely needed to tell her the contents of Sara's letter, so swiftly had she summed up the immediate connection between the glimpse she had caught of Sara's handwriting and the shadow on the beloved face.
She moved eagerly to meet him as she heard the soft purr of the motor coming up the drive.
"Well?" she queried, slipping her arm through his and drawing him towards the terrace.
Tim looked at her with troubled eyes. He could guess so exactly what her attitude would be, and he was not going to allow even Elisabeth to say unkind things about the woman he loved. If he could prevent it, she should not think them.
Very gently, and with infinite tact, he told her the result of his interview with Sara, concealing so far as might be his own incalculable hurt.
To his relief, his mother accepted the facts with unexpected tolerance. He could not see her expression, since her eyes veiled themselves with down-dropped lids, but she spoke quite quietly and as though trying to be fair in her judgment. There was no outward sign by which her son might guess the seething torrent of anger and resentment which had been aroused within her.
"But if, as you tell me, Sara doesn't expect to marry this man she cares for, surely she had been unduly hasty? If he can never be anything to her, need she set aside all thought of matrimony?"
Tim stared at his mother in some surprise. There was a superficial worldly wisdom in the speech which he would not have anticipated.
"It seems to me rather absurd," she continued placidly. "Quixotic—the sort of romantic 'live and die unwed' idea that is quite exploded. Girls nowadays don't wither on their virgin stems if the man they want doesn't happen to be in a position to marry them. They marry some one else."
Tim felt almost shocked. From his childhood he had invested his mother with a kind of rarefied grace of mental and moral qualities commensurate with her physical beauty, and her enunciation of the cynical creed of modern times staggered him. It never occurred to him that Elisabeth was probing round in order to extract a clear idea of Sara's attitude in the whole matter, and he forthwith proceeded innocently to give her precisely the information she was seeking.
"Sara isn't like that, mother," he said rather shortly. "It's just the—the crystal purity of her outlook which makes her what she is—so absolutely straight and fearless. She sees love, and holds by what she believes its demands to be. I wouldn't wish her any different," he added loyally.
"Perhaps not. But if—supposing the man proves to have a wife already? He might be separated from her; Sara doesn't seem to know much about him. Or he may have a wife in a lunatic asylum who is likely to live for the next forty years. What then? Will Sara never marry if—if there were a circumstance like that—a really insurmountable obstacle?"
"No, I don't believe she will. I don't think she would wish to. If he loves her and she him, spiritually they would be bound to one another—lovers. And just the circumstance of his being tied to another woman would make no difference to Sara's point of view. She goes beyond material things—or the mere physical side of love."
"Then there is no chance for you unless Sara learns to unlove this man?"
Tim regarded her with faint amusement.
"Mother, do you think you could learn to unlove me—or my father?"
She laughed a little.
"You have me there, Tim," she acknowledged. "But"—hesitating a little—"Sara knows so little of the man, apparently, that she may have formed a mistaken estimate of his character. Perhaps he is not really the—the ideal individual she has pictured him."
"You are a very transparent person, mother mine," he said indulgently. "But I'm afraid your hopes of finding that the idol has feet of clay are predestined to disappointment."
"Have you met the man?" asked Elisabeth sharply.
"I do not even know his name. But I should imagine him a man of big, fine qualities."
"Since you don't know him, you can hardly pronounce an opinion."
A whimsical smile, touched with sadness, flitted across Tim's face.
"I know Sara," was all he said.
"Sara is given to idealizing the people she cares for," rejoined Elisabeth.
She spoke quietly, but her expression was curiously intent. It was as though she were gathering together her forces, concentrating them towards some definite purpose, veiled in the inscrutable depths of those strange eyes of hers.
"I find it difficult to forgive her," she said at last.
"That's not like you, mother."
"It is—just like me," she responded, a tone of half-tender mockery in her voice. "Naturally I find it difficult to forgive the woman who has hurt my son."
Tim answered her out of the fullness of the queer new wisdom with which love had endowed him.
"A man would rather be hurt by the woman he loves than humoured by the woman he doesn't love," he said quietly.
And Elisabeth, understanding, held her peace.
She had been very controlled, very wise and circumspect in her dealing with Tim, conscious of raw-edged nerves that would bear but the lightest of handling. But it was another woman altogether who, half-an-hour later, faced Geoffrey Durward in the seclusion of his study.
The two moving factors in Elisabeth's life had been, primarily, her love for her husband, and, later on, her love for Tim, and into this later love was woven all the passionately protective instinct of the maternal element. She was the type of woman who would have plucked the feathers from an archangel's wing if she thought they would contribute to her son's happiness; and now, realizing that the latter was threatened by the fact that his love for Sara had failed to elicit a responsive fire, she felt bitterly resentful and indignant.
"I tell you, Geoffrey," she declared in low, forceful tones, "she shall marry Tim—she shall! I will not have his beautiful young life marred and spoilt by the caprices of any woman."
Major Durward looked disturbed.
"My dear, I shouldn't call Sara in the least a capricious woman. She knows her own heart—"
"So does Tim!" broke in Elisabeth. "And, if I can compass it, he shall have his heart's desire."
Her husband shook his head.
"You cannot force the issue, my dear."
"Can I not? There's little a woman cannot do for husband or child! I tell you, Geoffrey—for you, or for Tim, to give you pleasure, to buy you happiness, I would sacrifice anybody in the world!"
She stood in front of him, her beautiful eyes glowing, and her voice was all shaken and a-thrill with the tumult of emotion that had gripped her. There was something about her which suggested a tigress on the defensive—at bay, shielding her young.
Durward looked at her with kind, adoring eyes.
"That's beautiful of you, darling," he replied gently. "But it's a dangerous doctrine. And I know that, really, you're far too tender-hearted to sacrifice a fly."
Elisabeth regarded him oddly.
"You don't know me, Geoffrey," she said very slowly. "No man knows a woman, really—not all her thoughts." And had Major Durward, honest fellow, realized the volcanic force of passion hidden behind the tense inscrutability of his wife's lovely face, he would have been utterly confounded. We do not plumb the deepest depths even of those who are closest to us.
Civilisation had indeed forced the turgid river to run within the narrow channels hewn by established custom, but, released from the bondage of convention, the soul of Elisabeth Durward was that of sheer primitive woman, and the pivot of all her actions her love for her mate and for the man-child she had borne him.
Once, years ago, she had sacrificed justice, and honour, and a man's faith in womanhood on that same pitiless altar of love. But the story of that sacrifice was known only to herself and one other—and that other was not Durward.
A full week had elapsed since the night of that eventful journey in pursuit of Molly, and from the moment when Garth had given Sara into the safe keeping of Jane Crab till the moment when he came upon her by the pergola at Rose Cottage, perched on the top of a ladder, engaged in tying back the exuberance of a Crimson Rambler, they had not met.
And now, as he halted at the foot of the ladder, Sara was conscious that her spirits had suddenly bounded up to impossible heights at the sight of the lean, dark face upturned to her.
"The Lavender Lady and Miles are pottering about in the greenhouse," she announced explanatorily, waving her hand in the direction of a distant glimmer of glass beyond the high box hedge which flanked the rose-garden.
"Are they?" Trent, thus arrested in the progress of his search for his host and hostess, seemed entirely indifferent as to whether it were ever completed or not. He leaned against one of the rose-wreathed pillars of the pergola and gazed negligently in the direction Sara indicated.
"How is Miss Molly?" he asked.
"She is just beginning to discard sackcloth and ashes for something more becoming," she informed him gravely.
"That's good. Are you—are you all right after your tumble? I'm making these kind inquiries because, since it was my car out of which you elected to fall, I feel a sense of responsibility."
Sara descended from the ladder before she replied. Then she remarked composedly—
"It has taken precisely seven days, apparently, for that sense of responsibility to develop."
"On the contrary, for seven days my thirst for knowledge has been only restrained by the pointings of conscience."
"Then"—she spoke rather low—"was it conscience pointing you—away from Sunnyside?"
His hazel eyes flashed over her face.
"Perhaps it was—discretion," he suggested. "Looking in at shop windows when one has an empty purse is a poor occupation—and one to be avoided."
"Did you want to come?" she persisted gently.
Half absently he had cut off a piece of dead wood from the rose-bush next him and was twisting it idly to and fro between his fingers. At her words, the dead wood stem snapped suddenly in his clenched hand. For an instant he seemed about to make some passionate rejoinder. Then he slowly unclenched his hand and the broken twig fell to the ground.
"Haven't I made it clear to you—yet," he said slowly, "that what I want doesn't enter into the scheme of things at all?"
The brief speech held a sense of impending finality, and, in the silence which followed, the eyes of the man and woman met, questioned each other desperately, and answered.
There are moments when modesty is a false quantity, and when the big happinesses of life depend on a woman's capacity to realize this and her courage to act upon it. To Sara, it seemed that such a moment had come to her, and the absolute sincerity of her nature met it unafraid.
"No," she said quietly. "You have only made clear to me—what you want, Garth. Need we—pretend to each other any longer?"
"I don't understand," he muttered.
"Don't you?" She drew a littler nearer him, and the face she lifted to his was very white. But her eyes were shining. "That night—when I fell from the car—I—I wasn't unconscious."
For an instant he stared at her, incredulous. Then he swung aside a little, his hand gripping the pillar against which he had been leaning till his knuckles showed white beneath the straining skin.
"You—weren't unconscious?" he repeated blankly.
"No—not all the time. I—heard—what you said."
He seemed to pull himself together.
"Oh, Heaven only knows what I may have said at a moment like that," he answered carelessly, but his voice was rough and hoarse. "A man talks wild when the woman he's with only misses death by a hair's breath."
Sara's lips upturned at the corners in a slow smile—a smile that was neither mocking, nor tender, nor chiding, but an exquisite blending of all three. She caught her breath quickly—Trent could hear its soft sibilance. Then she spoke.
"Will you marry me, please, Garth?"
He drew back from her, violently, his underlip hard bitten. At last, after a long silence—
"No!" he burst out harshly. "No! I can't!"
For an instant she was shaken. Then, buoyed up by the memory of that night when she had lain in his arms and when the agony of the moment had stripped him of all power to hide his love, she challenged his denial.
"Why not?" Her voice was vibrant. "You love me!"
"Yes . . . I love you." The words seemed torn from him.
"Then why won't you marry me?"
It did not seem to her that she was doing anything unusual or unwomanly. The man she loved had carried his burden single-handed long enough. The time had come when for his own sake as well as for hers, she must wring the truth from him, make him break through the silence which had long been torturing them both. Whatever might be the outcome, whether pain or happiness, they must share it.
"Why won't you marry me, Garth?"
The little question, almost voiceless in its intensity, clamoured loudly at his heart.
"Don't tempt me!" he cried out hoarsely. "My God! I wonder if you know how you are tempting me?"
She came a little closer to him, laying her hand on his arm, while her great, sombre eyes silently entreated him.
As though the touch of her were more than he could bear, his hard-held passion crashed suddenly through the bars his will had set about it.
He caught her in his arms, lifting her sheer off her feet against his breast, whilst his lips crushed down upon her mouth and throat, burned against her white, closed lids, and the hard clasp of his arms about her was a physical pain—an exquisite agony that it was a fierce joy to suffer.
"Then—then you do love me?" She leaned against him, breathless, her voice unsteady, her whole slender body shaken with an answering passion.
"Love you?" The grip of his arms about her made response. "Love you? I love you with my soul and my body, here and through whatever comes Hereafter. You are my earth and heaven—the whole meaning of things—" He broke off abruptly, and she felt his arms slacken their hold and slowly unclasp as though impelled to it by some invisible force.
"What was I saying?" The heat of passion had gone out of his voice, leaving it suddenly flat and toneless. "'The whole meaning of things?'" He gave a curious little laugh. It had a strangled sound, almost like the cry of some tortured thing. "Then things have no meaning——"
Sara stood staring at him, bewildered and a little frightened.
"Garth, what is it?" she whispered. "What has happened?"
He turned, and, walking away from her a few paces, stood very still with his head bent and one hand covering his eyes.
Overhead, the sunshine, filtering in through the green trellis of leafy twigs, flaunted gay little dancing patches of gold on the path below, as the leaves moved flickeringly in the breeze, and where the twisted growth of a branch had left a leafless aperture, it flung a single shaft of quivering light athwart the pergola. It gleamed like a shining sword between the man and woman, as though dividing them one from the other and thrusting each into the shadows that lay on either hand.
At the sound of her voice he dropped his hand to his side and came slowly back and stood beside her. His face was almost grey, and the tortured expression of his eyes seemed to hurt her like the stab of a knife.
"You must try to forgive me," he said, speaking very low and rapidly. "I had no earthly right to tell you that I cared, because—because I can't ask you to marry me. I told you once that I had forfeited my claim to the good things in life. That was true. And, having that knowledge, I ought to have kept away from you—for I knew how it was going to be with me from the first moment I saw you. I fought against it in the beginning—tried not to love you. Afterwards, I gave in, but I never dreamed that—you—would come to care, too. That seemed something quite beyond the bounds of human possibility."
"Did it? I can't see why it should?"
"Can't you?" He smiled a little. "If you were a man who has lived under a cloud for over twenty years, who has nothing in the world to recommend him, and only a tarnished reputation as his life-work, you, too, would have thought it inconceivable. Anyway, I did, and, thinking that, I dared to give myself the pleasure of seeing you—of being sometimes in your company. Perhaps"—grimly—"it was as much a torture as a joy on occasion. . . . But still, I was near you. . . . I could see you—touch your hand—serve you, perhaps, in any little way that offered. That was all something—something very wonderful to come into a life that, to all intents and purposes, was over. And I thought I could keep myself in hand—never let you know that I cared—"
"You certainly tried hard enough to convince me that you didn't," she interrupted ruefully.
"Yes, I tried. And I failed. And now, all that remains is for me to go away. I shall never forgive myself for having brought pain into your life—I, who would so gladly have brought only happiness. . . . God in Heaven!"—he whispered to himself as though the thought were almost blinding in the promise of ecstasy it held—"To have been the one to bring you happiness! . . ." He fell silent, his mouth wrung and twisted with pain.
Presently her voice came to him again, softly supplicating. "I shall never forgive you—if you go away and leave me," she added. "I can't do without you now—now that I know you care."
"But I must go! I can't marry you—you haven't understood—"
"Haven't I?" She smiled—a small, wise, wonderful smile that began somewhere deep in her heart and touched her lips and lingered in her eyes.
"Tell me," she said. "Are you married, Garth?"
"Married! God forbid!"
"And if you married me, would you be wronging any one?"
"Only you yourself," he answered grimly.
"Then nothing else matters. You are free—and I'm free. And I love you!"
She leaned towards him, her hands outheld, her mouth still touched with that little, mystic smile. "Please—tell me all over again now much you love me."
But no answering hands met hers. Instead, he drew away from her and faced her, stern-lipped.
"I must make you understand," he said. "You don't know what it is that you are asking. I've made shipwreck of my life, and I must pay the penalty. But, by God, I'm not going to let you pay it, too! And if you married me, you would have to pay. You would be joining your life to that of an outcast. I can never go out into the world as other men may. If I did"—slowly—"if I did, sooner or later I should be driven away—thrust back into my solitude. I have nothing to offer—nothing to give—only a life that has been cursed from the outset. Don't misunderstand me," he went on quickly. "I'm not complaining, bidding for your sympathy. If a man's a fool, he must be prepared to pay for his folly—even though it means a life penalty for a moment's madness. And I shall have to pay—to the uttermost farthing. Mine's the kind of debt which destiny never remits." He paused; then added defiantly: "The woman who married me would have to share in that payment—to go out with me into the desert in which I lie, and she would have to do this without knowing what she was paying for, or why the door of the world is locked against me. My lips are sealed, nor shall I ever be able to break the seal. Now do you understand why I can never ask you, or any other woman to be my wife?"
Sara looked at him curiously; he could not read the expression of her face.
"Have you finished?" she asked. "Is that all?"
"All? Isn't it enough?"—with a grim laugh.
"And you are letting this—this folly of your youth stand between us?"
"The world applies a harder word than folly to it!"
"I don't care anything at all about the world. What do you call it?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I call it folly to ask the criminal in the dock whether he approves the judge's verdict. He's hardly likely to!"
For a moment she was silent. Then she seemed to gather herself together.
"Garth, do you love me?"
The words fell clearly on the still, summer air.
"Yes"—doggedly—"I love you. What then?"
"What then? Why—this! I don't care what you've done. It doesn't matter to me whether you are an outcast or not. If you are, then I'm willing to be an outcast with you. Oh, Garth—My Garth! I've been begging you to marry me all afternoon, and—and——" with a broken little laugh—"you can't keep on refusing me!"
Before her passionate faith and trust the barriers he had raised between them came crashing down. His arms went round her, and for a few moments they clung together and love wiped out all bitter memories of the past and all the menace of the future.
But presently he came back to his senses. Very gently he put her from him.
"It's not right," he stammered unsteadily. "I can't accept this from you. Dear, you must let me go away. . . . I can't spoil your beautiful life by joining it to mine!"
She drew his arm about her shoulders again.
"You will spoil it if you go away. Oh! Garth, you dear, foolish man! When will you understand that love is the only thing that matters? If you had committed all the sins in the Decalogue, I shouldn't care! You're mine now"—jealously—"my lover. And I'm not going to be thrust out of your life for some stupid scruple. Let the past take care of itself. The present is ours. And—and I love you, Garth!"
It was difficult to reason coolly with her arms about him, her lips so near his own, and his great love for her pulling at his heart. But he made one further effort.
"If you should ever regret it, Sara?" he whispered. "I don't think I could bear that."
She looked at him with steady eyes.
"You will not have it to bear," she said. "I shall never regret it."
Still he hesitated. But the dawn of a great hope grew and deepened in his face.
"If you could be content to live here—at Far End . . . It is just possible!" He spoke reflectively, as though debating the matter with himself. "The curse has not followed me to this quiet little corner of the earth. Perhaps—after all . . . Sara, could you stand such a life? Or would you always be longing to get out into the great world? As I've told you, the world is shut to me. There's that in my past which blocks the way to any future. Have you the faith—the courage—to face that?"
Her eyes, steadfast and serene, met his.
"I have courage to face anything—with you, Garth. But I haven't courage to face living without you."
He bent his head and kissed her on the mouth—a slow, lingering kiss that held something far deeper and more enduring than mere passion. And Sara, as she kissed him back, her soul upon her lips, felt as though together they had partaken of love's holy sacrament.
"Beloved"—Garth's voice, unspeakably tender, came to her through the exquisite silence of the moment—"Beloved, it shall be as you wish. Whether I am right or wrong in taking this great gift you offer me—God knows! If I am wrong—then, please Heaven, whatever punishment there be may fall on me alone."
A SUMMER IDYLL
The summer, of all seasons of the year, is very surely the perfect time for lovers, and to Sara the days that followed immediately upon her engagement to Garth Trent were days of unalloyed happiness.
These were wonderful hours which they passed together, strolling through the summer-foliaged woods, or lazing on the sun-baked sands, or, perhaps, roaming the range of undulating cliffs that stretched away to the west from the headland where Far End stood guard.
During those hours of intimate companionship, Sara began to learn the hidden deeps of Garth's nature, discovering the almost romantic delicacy of thought that underlay his harsh exterior.
"You're more than half a poet, my Garth!" she told him one day.
"A transcendental fool, in other words," he amended, smiling. "Well"—looking at her oddly—"perhaps you're right. But it's too late to improve me any. As the twig is bent, so the tree grows, you know."
"I don't want to improve you," Sara assured him promptly. "I shouldn't like you to be in the least bit different from what you are. It wouldn't be my Garth, then, at all."
So they would sit together and talk the foolish, charming nonsense that all lovers have talked since the days of Adam and Eve, whilst from above, the sun shone down and blessed them, and the waves, lapping peacefully on the shore, murmured an obbligato to their love-making.
Looking backward, in the bitter months that followed when her individual happiness had been caught away from her in a whirlwind of calamity, and when the whole world was reeling under the red storm of war, Sara could always remember the utter, satisfying peace of those golden days of early July—an innocent, unthinking peace that neither she nor the world would ever quite regain. Afterwards, memory would always have her scarred and bitter place at the back of things.
Sara found no hardship now in receiving the congratulations of her friends—and they fell about her like rain—while in the long, intimate talks she had with Garth the fact that he would never speak of the past weighed with her not at all. She guessed that long ago he had been guilty of some mad, boyish escapade which, with his exaggerated sense of honour and the delicate idealism that she had learned to know as an intrinsic part of his temperamental make-up, he had magnified into a cardinal sin. And she was content to leave it at that and to accept the present, gathering up with both hands the happiness it held.
She had written to Elisabeth, telling her of her engagement, and, to her surprise, had received the most charming and friendly letter in return.
"Of course," wrote Elisabeth in her impulsive, flowing hand with its heavy dashes and fly-away dots, "we cannot but wish that it had been otherwise—that you could have learned to care for Tim—but you know better than any one of us where your happiness lies, and you are right to take it. And never think, Sara, that this is going to make any difference to our friendship. I could read between the lines of your letter that you had some such foolish thought in your mind. So little do I mean this to make any break between us that—as I can quite realize it would be too much to ask that you should come to us at Barrow just now—I propose coming down to Monkshaven. I want to meet the lucky individual who has won my Sara. I have not been too well lately—the heat has tried me—and Geoffrey is anxious that I should go away to the sea for a little. So that all things seem to point to my coming to Monkshaven. Does your primitive little village boast a hotel? Or, if not, can you engage some decent rooms for me?"
The remainder of the letter dealt with the practical details concerning the proposed visit, and Sara, in a little flurry of joyous excitement, had hurried off to the Cliff Hotel and booked the best suite of rooms it contained for Elisabeth.
On her way home she encountered Garth in the High Street, and forthwith proceeded to acquaint him with her news.
"I've just been fixing up rooms at the 'Cliff' for a friend of mine who is coming down here," she said, as he turned and fell into step beside her. "A woman friend," she added hastily, seeing his brows knit darkly.
"So much the better! But I could have done without the importation of any friends of yours—male or female—just now. They're entirely superfluous"—smiling.
"Well, I'm glad Mrs. Durward is coming, because—"
"Who did you say?" broke in Garth, pausing in his stride.
"Mrs. Durward—Tim's mother, you know," she explained. She had confided to him the history of her brief engagement to Tim.
Trent resumed his walk, but more slowly; the buoyancy seemed suddenly gone out of his step.
"Don't you think," he said, speaking in curiously measured tones, "that, in the circumstances, it will be a little awkward Mrs. Durward's coming here just now?"
Sara disclaimed the idea, pointing out that it was the very completeness of Elisabeth's conception of friendship which was bringing her to Monkshaven.
"When does she come?" asked Trent.
"On Thursday. I'm very anxious for you to meet her, Garth. She is so thoroughly charming. I think it is splendid of her not to let my broken engagement with Tim make any difference between us. Most mothers would have borne a grudge for that!"
"And you think Mrs. Durward has overlooked it?"—with a curious smile.
Sara enthusiastically assured him that this was the case.
"I wonder!" he said meditatively. "It would be very unlike Elis—unlike any woman"—he corrected himself hastily—"to give up a fixed idea so easily."
"Well"—Sara laughed gaily. "Nowadays you can't compel a person to marry the man she doesn't want—nor prevent her from marrying the man she does."
"I don't know. A determined woman can do a good deal."
"But Elisabeth isn't a bit the determined type of female you're evidently imagining," protested Sara, amused. "She is very beautiful and essentially feminine—rather a wonderful kind of person, I think. Wait till you see her!"
"I'm afraid," said Trent slowly, "that I shall not see your charming friend. I have to run up to Town next week on—on business."
"Oh!" Sara's disappointment showed itself in her voice. "Can't you put it off?"
He halted outside a tobacconist's shop. "Do you mind waiting a moment while I go in here and get some baccy?"
He disappeared into the shop, and Sara stood gazing idly across the street, watching a jolly little fox-terrier enjoying a small but meaty bone he had filched from the floor of a neighbouring butcher's shop.
His placid enjoyment of the stolen feast was short-lived. A minute later a lean and truculent Irish terrier came swaggering round the corner, spotted the succulent morsel, and, making one leap, landed fairly on top of the smaller dog. In an instant pandemonium arose, and the quiet street re-echoed to the noise of canine combat.
The little fox-terrier put up a plucky fight in defence of his prior claim to the bone of contention, but soon superior weight began to tell, and it was evident that the Irishman was getting the better of the fray. The fox-terrier's owner, very elegantly dressed, watched the battle from a safe distance, wringing her hands and calling upon all and sundry of the small crowd which had speedily collected to save her darling from the lions.
No one, however, seemed disposed to relieve her of this office—for the Irishman was an ugly-looking customer—when suddenly, like a streak of light, a slim figure flashed across the road, and flung itself into the melee, whist a vibrating voice broke across the uproar with an imperative: "Let go, you brute!"
It was all over in a moment. Somehow Sara's small, strong hands had separated the twisting, growling, biting heap of dog into its component parts of fox and Irish, and she was standing with the little fox-terrier, panting and bleeding profusely, in her arms, while one or two of the bystanders—now that all danger was past—drove off the Irishman.
"Oh! But how brave of you!" The owner of the fox-terrier rustled forward. "I can't ever thank you sufficiently."
Sara turned to her, her black eyes blazing.
"Is this your dog?" she asked.
"Yes. And I'm sure"—volubly—"he would have been torn to pieces by that great hulking brute if you hadn't separated them. I should never have dared!"
Garth, coming out of the tobacconist's shop across the way, joined the little knot of people just in time to hear Sara answer cuttingly, as she put the terrier into its owner's arms—
"You've no business to have a dog if you've not got the pluck to look after him!"
As she and Trent bent their steps homeward, Sara regaled him with the full, true, and particular account of the dog-fight, winding up indignantly—
"Foul women like that ought not to be allowed to take out a dog licence. I hate people who shirk their responsibilities."
"You despise cowards?" he asked.
"More than anything on earth," she answered heartily.
He was silent a moment. Then he said reflectively—
"And yet, I suppose, a certain amount of allowance must be made for—nerves."
"It seems to me it depends on what your duty demands of you at the moment," she rejoined. "Nerves are a luxury. You can afford them when it makes no difference to other people whether you're afraid or not—but not when it does."
"And from what deeps did you draw such profound wisdom?" he asked quizzically.
Sara laughed a little.
"I had it well rubbed into me by my Uncle Patrick," she replied. "It was his Credo."
"And yet, I can understand any one's nerves cracking suddenly—after a prolonged strain."
"I don't think yours would," responded Sara contentedly, with a vivid recollection of their expedition to the island and its aftermath.
"Possibly not. But I suppose no man can be dead sure of himself—always."
"Will you come in?" asked Sara as they paused at Sunnyside gate.
"Not to-day, I think. I had better begin to accustom myself to doing without you, as I am going away so soon"—smiling.
"I wish you were not going," she rejoined discontentedly. "I so wanted you and Elisabeth to meet. Must you go?"
"I'm afraid I must. And it's better that I should go, on the whole. I should only be raging up and down like an untied devil because Mrs. Durward was taking up so much of your time! Let her have you to herself for a few days—and then, when I come back, I shall have you to myself again."
PATCHES OF BLUE
Elisabeth frowned a little as she perused the letter which she had that morning received from Sara. It contained the information that rooms in her name had been booked at the Cliff Hotel, and further, that Sara was much disappointed that it would be impossible to arrange for her to meet Garth Trent, as he was leaving home on the Wednesday prior to her arrival.
Trent's departure was the last thing Elisabeth desired. Above all things, she wanted to meet the man whom she regarded as the stumbling-block in the path of her son, for if it were possible that anything might yet be done to further the desire of Tim's heart, it could only be if Elisabeth, as the dea ex machina, were acquainted with all the pieces in the game.
She must know what manner of man it was who had succeeded in winning Sara's heart before she could hope to combat his influence, and, if the feet of clay were there, she must see them herself before she could point them out to Sara's love-illusioned eyes. Should she fail of making Trent's acquaintance, she would be fighting in the dark.
Elisabeth pondered the matter for some time. Finally, she dispatched a telegram, prepaying a reply, to the proprietor of the Cliff Hotel, and a few hours later she announced to her husband that she proposed antedating her visit to Monkshaven by three days.