A Question of Trust by Ethel M. Dell
Pierre Dumaresq stood gazing out to the hard blue line of the horizon with a frown between his brows. The glare upon the water was intense, but he stared into it with fixed, unflinching eyes, unconscious of discomfort.
He held a supple riding-switch in his hands, at which his fingers strained and twisted continually, as though somewhere in the inner man there burned a fierce impatience. But his dark face was as immovable as though it had been carved in bronze. A tropical sun had made him even darker than Nature had intended him to be, a fact to which those fixed eyes testified, for they shone like steel in the sunlight, in curious contrast to his swarthy skin. His hair was black, cropped close about a bullet head, which was set on his broad shoulders with an arrogance that gave him a peculiarly aggressive air. The narrow black moustache he wore emphasised rather than concealed the thin straight line of mouth. Plainly a fighting man this, and one, moreover, accustomed to hold his own.
At the striking of a clock in the room behind him he turned as though a voice had spoken, and left the stone balcony on which he had been waiting. His spurs rang as he stepped into the room behind it. The floor was uncarpeted, and shone like ebony.
He glanced around him as one unfamiliar with his surroundings. It was a large apartment, and lofty, but it contained very little furniture--a couch, two or three chairs, a writing-table; on the walls, several strangely shaped weapons; on the mantelpiece a couple of foils.
He smiled as his look fell upon these, and, crossing the room, he took one of them up, and tested it between his hands.
At the quiet opening of the door he wheeled, still holding it. A woman stood a moment upon the threshold; then slowly entered. She was little more than a girl but the cold dignity of her demeanour imparted to her the severity of more advanced years. Her face was like marble, white, pure, immobile; but there was a touch of pathos about the eyes. They were deeply shadowed, and looked as if they had watched--or wept--for many hours.
Dumaresq bowed in the brief English fashion, instantly straightening himself with a squaring of his broad shoulders that were already so immensely square that they made his height seem inconsiderable.
She gravely inclined her head in response. She did not invite him to sit down, and he remained where he was, with his fierce eyes unwaveringly upon her.
In the middle of the room, full three yards from him, she paused, and deliberately met his scrutiny.
"You wished to see me, Monsieur Dumaresq?" she said in English.
"Yes," said Dumaresq. He turned, and laid the foil back upon the mantelpiece behind him; then calmly crossed the intervening space, and stood before her. "I am grateful to you for granting me an interview, mademoiselle," he said. "I am aware that you have done so against your will."
There was something of a challenge in the words, but she did not seem to hear it. She made answer in a slow, quiet voice that held neither antagonism nor friendliness.
"I supposed that you had some suggestion to make, monsieur, which it was my duty to hear."
"I see," said Dumaresq, still narrowly observing her. "Well, you are right. I have a suggestion to make, one which I beg, for your own sake, that you will cordially consider."
Before the almost brutal directness of his look her own eyes slowly sank. A very faint tinge of colour crept over her pallor, but she made no signs of flinching.
"What is your suggestion, monsieur?" she quietly asked him.
He did not instantly reply. Perhaps he had not altogether expected the calm question. She showed no impatience, but she would not again meet his eyes. In silence she waited.
At length abruptly he began to speak.
"Have you," he asked, "given any thought to your position here? Have you made any plans for yourself in the event of a rising?"
Her eyelids quivered a little, but she did not raise them.
"I do not think," she said, her voice very low, "that the time has yet come for making plans."
Dumaresq threw back his head with a movement that seemed to indicate either impatience or surprise.
"You are living on the edge of a volcano," he told her, with grim force; "and at any moment you may be overwhelmed. Have you never faced that yet? Haven't you yet begun to realise that Maritas is a hotbed of scoundrels--the very scum and rabble of creation--blackguards whom their own countries have, for the most part, refused to tolerate--some of them half-breeds, all of them savages? Haven't you yet begun to ask yourself what you may expect from these devils when they take the law into their own hands? I tell you, mademoiselle, it may happen this very night. It may be happening now!"
She raised her eyes at that--dark eyes that gleamed momentarily and were as swiftly lowered. When she spoke, her low voice held a thrill of scorn.
"Not now, monsieur," she said. "To-night--possibly! But not now--not without you to lead them!"
Pierre Dumaresq made a slight movement. It could not have been called a menace, though it was in a fashion suggestive of violence suppressed--the violence of the baited bull not fully roused to the charge.
"You are not wise, Mademoiselle Stephanie," he said.
She answered him in a voice that quivered, in spite of her obvious effort to control it.
"Nor am I altogether a fool, monsieur. Your sympathies are well known. The revolutionists have looked to you to lead them as long as I have known Maritas."
"That may be, mademoiselle," he sternly responded. "But it is possible, is it not, that they may look in vain?"
Again swiftly her glance flashed upwards.
"Is it possible?" she breathed.
He did not deign to answer.
"I have not come to discuss my position," he said curtly, "but yours. What are you going to do, mademoiselle? How do you propose to escape?"
She was white now, white to the lips; but she did not shrink.
"I beg that you will not concern yourself on my account," she said proudly. "I shall no doubt find a means of escape if I need it."
"Where, mademoiselle?" There was something dogged in the man's voice, his eyes were relentless in their determination. "Are you intending to look to your stepfather for protection?"
Again, involuntarily almost, she raised her eyes, but they held no fear.
"No, monsieur," she responded coldly. "I shall find a better way than that."
The brief question sounded like a threat. She stiffened as she heard it, and stood silent.
"How, mademoiselle?" he said again.
She made a slight gesture of protest.
"Monsieur, it is no one's concern but my own."
"And mine," he said stubbornly.
She shook her head.
"And mine," he repeated with emphasis, "since I presume to make it so. You refuse to answer me merely because you know as well as I do that you are caught in a trap from which you are powerless to release yourself. And now listen to me. There is a way out--only one way, mademoiselle--and if you are wise you will take it, without delay. There is only one man in Maritas who can save you. So far as I know, there is only one man willing to attempt it. That man holds you already in the hollow of his hand. You will be wise to make terms with him while you can."
His tone was curiously calm, almost cynical. His eyes were still fixed unswervingly upon her face. They beat down the haughty surprise with which for a few seconds she encountered them.
"Yes, mademoiselle," he resumed quietly, as though she had spoken. "He is a man whom you despise from the bottom of your soul; but for all that, he is not wholly despicable. Nor is he incapable of deserving your trust if you will bestow it upon him. It is all a question of trust." He smiled grimly at the word. "Whatever you expect from him, that you will receive in full measure. He does not disappoint his friends--or his enemies."
He paused. She was listening with eyes downcast, but her face was a very mask of cold disdain.
"Monsieur," she said, with stately deliberation, "I do not--wholly--understand you. But it would be wasting your time and my own to ask you to explain. As I said before, in the event of a crisis I can secure my own safety."
"Nevertheless," said Pierre Dumaresq with a deliberation even greater than her own, "I will explain, since a clear understanding seems to me advisable. I am asking you to marry me, Mademoiselle Stephanie, in order to ensure your safety. It is practically your only alternative now, and it must be taken at once. I shall know how to protect my wife. Marry me, and I will take you out of the city to my home on the other side of the island. My yacht is there in readiness, and escape at any time would be easy."
"Escape, monsieur!" Sharply she broke in upon him. Her coldness was all gone in a sudden flame of indignation kindled by the sheer arrogance of his bearing. "Escape from whom--from what?"
He was silent an instant, almost as if disconcerted. Then:
"Escape from your enemies, mademoiselle," he rejoined sternly. "Escape from the mercy of the mob, which is all you can expect if you stay here."
Her eyes flashed over him in a single, searing glance of the most utter, the most splendid contempt. Then:
"You are more than kind, Monsieur Dumaresq," she said. "But your suggestion does not recommend itself to me. In short, I should prefer--the mercy of the mob."
The man's brows met ferociously. His hands clenched. He almost looked for the moment as though he would strike her. But she did not flinch before him, and very slowly the tension passed. Yet his eyes shone terribly upon her as a sword-blade that is flashed in the sunlight.
"A strange preference, mademoiselle," he remarked at length, turning to pick up his riding-switch. "Possibly you may change your mind--before it is too late."
"Never!" she answered proudly.
And Pierre Dumaresq laughed--a sudden, harsh laugh, and turned to go. It was only what he had expected, after all, but it galled him none the less. He uttered no threat of any sort; only at the door he stood for an instant and looked back at her. And the woman's heart contracted within her as though her blood had turned to ice.