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- The Hermit of Far End - 1/67 -


THE HERMIT OF FAR END

By Margaret Pedler

First Published 1920.

PROLOGUE

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.


The Hermit of Far End - 1/67

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