A Question of Trust by Ethel M. Dell
When Pierre let her go, she fell, half-fainting, against the rail, and must have sunk at his feet had he not sharply stooped and lifted her. Profiting by a brief lull in the tempest, he bore her down the steps and into the dark saloon. She lay quite passive in his arms, dazed, exhausted, but still curiously devoid of fear.
He laid her upon a cushioned locker by the wall, and relighted the lamp. Then, in utter silence, he carried her to her cabin beyond and left her there. She had a single glimpse of his face as he turned away, and it seemed to her that she had looked upon the face of a man in torture. He went away without a word, and she was left alone.
And so for hours she lay, unmindful of the storm, regardless utterly of aught that happened, lying with wide eyes and burning cheeks, conscious only of that ever-growing wonder that was not fear.
At dawn the wind abated and the yacht began to pitch less. When the sun had been up for a few hours, the gale of the night was a thing of the past, and only the white-capped waves were left as a laughing reminder of the storm that had passed over.
The day was brilliant, and Stephanie arose at length with a feeling that she must go up into the sunshine and face the future. The thought of meeting Pierre even could not ultimately detain her below, though it kept her there considerably longer than usual. After all, was she not bound to meet him? Of what use was it to shirk the inevitable?
But when she finally entered the saloon, he was not there. The table was laid for breakfast, and a sailor was at hand to serve her. But of Pierre there was no sign. He evidently had no intention of joining her.
She made no inquiry for him, but as soon as the meal was over she took her cloak and prepared to go on deck. With nervous haste she passed the scene of the previous night's encounter. She almost expected to find Pierre waiting for her at the top of the companion, but she looked for him in vain. And even when she finally stepped upon the deck and crossed to the rail that she might search the whole length of the yacht, she could not discover him.
A vague uneasiness began to trouble her. The suspense was hard to bear. She longed to meet him and have done with it.
But she longed in vain. All through the sunny hours of the morning she sat or paced in solitude. No one came near her till her breakfast attendant appeared with another meal.
By the end of the afternoon she was thoroughly miserable. She longed intensely to inquire for the yacht's master, yet could not bring herself to do so. Eventually it began to rain, and she went below and sat in the saloon, trying, quite ineffectually, to ease her torment of suspense with a book. But she comprehended nothing of what she read, and when the young cabin steward appeared again to set the dinner she looked up in desperation.
She was on the point of questioning him as to his master's whereabouts; the question, indeed, was already half uttered, when her eyes went beyond him and she broke off short.
Pierre himself was quietly entering through the companion door.
He bowed to her in his abrupt way, and signed to the lad to continue his task.
"He understands no English," he said. "You do not object to his presence?"
She replied in the negative, though in her heart she wished he had dismissed him. She could not meet his eyes before a third person. It added tenfold to her embarrassment.
But when he seated himself near her, she did venture a fleeting glance at him, and was amazed unspeakably by what she saw. For his face was haggard and drawn like the face of a sick man, and every hint of arrogance was gone from his bearing. He looked beaten.
He began to speak at once, jerkily, unnaturally, almost as if he also were embarrassed. "I have something to say to you," he said, "which I beg you will hear with patience. It concerns your future--and mine."
The strangeness of his manner, his obvious dejection, the amazing humility of his address, combined to endue Stephanie with a composure she had scarcely hoped to attain.
She found herself able to look at him quite steadily, and did so. It was he who--for the first time in her recollection--avoided her eyes.
"What is it, Monsieur Dumaresq?" she asked quietly.
His hands were gripped upon the arms of his chair. He seemed to be holding himself there by force.
"Just this," he said. "I find that your estimate is after all the correct one. You have always regarded me as a blackguard, and a blackguard I am. I am not here to apologise for it, simply to acknowledge my mistake, for, strange as it will seem to you, I took myself for something different. At least when I gave you my word I thought I was capable of keeping it. Well, it is broken, and, that being so, I can no longer hold you to yours. Do you understand, Mademoiselle Stephanie? You are a free woman."
For an instant he looked at her, and an odd thrill of pity ran through her for his humiliation.
She said nothing. She had no words in which to express herself. Moreover, her eyes were suddenly full of unaccountable tears. She could not have trusted her voice.
After a moment he resumed. "There is only one thing left to say. In two days we shall be in British waters. I will land you wherever you wish. But you shall not go from me to earn your own living. You will accept--you shall accept"--she heard the stubborn note she had come to know so well in his voice--"sufficient from me to make you independent for the rest of your life. Yes, from me, mademoiselle!" He looked her straight in the eyes with something of his old arrogance. "You can refuse, of course. No doubt you will refuse. But I can compel you. If you will not have it as a gift, you shall have it as--a bequest."
He ceased, but he continued to sit with his eyes upon her, ready, she knew, to beat down any and every objection she might raise.
She did not speak. She was for the moment too much surprised for speech; but as his meaning dawned upon her, something that was greater than either surprise or pity took possession of her, holding her silent. She only, after several moments, rose and stood with her face turned from him, watching through the porthole the waves that leaped by, all green and amber, in the light of sunset.
"You understand me clearly, Mademoiselle Stephanie?" he asked at length, in a voice that came harshly through the silence.
She moved slightly, but she did not turn.
"I have never understood you, monsieur," she made answer, her voice very low.
He jerked his shoulders impatiently.
"At least you understand me on this point," he said curtly.
She was silent. At length:
"But you do not understand me," she said.
"Better than you fancy, mademoiselle," he answered bitterly. "I do not think your feelings where I am concerned have ever been very complicated."
Again slightly she moved without looking round.
"I wish you would tell your man to go," she said.
"Mademoiselle?" There was a note of surprise in the query.
"Tell him to go!" she reiterated, with nervous vehemence.
There fell an abrupt silence. Then she heard an imperious snap of the fingers from Pierre, followed instantly by the steward's retiring footsteps.
She waited till she heard them no longer, then slowly she turned. Pierre had not moved from his chair. He was gripping the arms as before. She stood with her back to the light, thankful for the dimness that obscured her face.
"I--I have something to say to you, monsieur," she said.
"I am listening, mademoiselle," he responded briefly, not raising his eyes.
"Ah, but you must help me," she said, and her voice shook a little. "It--it is no easy thing that I have to say."
He made a fierce movement of unrest.
"How can I help you? I have given you your freedom. What more can I do?"
"You can spare me a moment's kindness," she answered gently. "You may be angry with yourself, but you need not be angry with me also."
"I am not angry with you," he responded half sullenly. "But I can bear no trifling, I warn you. I am not my own master. If you wish to secure yourself from further insult, you will be wise to leave me alone."
"And if not?" she questioned slowly. "If--for instance--I do not feel myself insulted by what happened last night?"
He glanced up at that so suddenly that she felt as if something pierced her.
"Then," he rejoined harshly, "you are a very strange woman, Mademoiselle Stephanie."
"I begin to think I am," she said, with a rather piteous smile. "Yet, for all that, I will not be trifled with either. A compact such as ours can only be cancelled by mutual consent. I think you are rather inclined to forget that."
"Meaning?" said Pierre abruptly.
She drew a sharp breath. Her heart was beating very fast.
"Meaning," she said, "meaning that I do not--and I will not--agree to your proposal; that if I accept my freedom from you, it will be because you force me to do so, and I will take nothing else--do you hear?--nothing else, either as a gift or as a bequest. You may compel me to accept my freedom--against my will; but nothing else, I swear--I swear!"
Her voice broke suddenly. She pressed her hands against her throat, striving to control her agitation. But she might as well have striven to contend with the previous night's storm; for it shook her, from head to foot it shook her, as a tree is shaken by the tempest.
As for Pierre, before her words were fairly uttered he had leapt to his feet. His hands were clenched. He looked almost as if he would strike her.
"What do you mean?" he thundered.
She could not answer, but still she did not flinch. She only threw out her hands and set them against his breast, holding him from her. Whether or not her eyes spoke for her she never knew, but he became suddenly rigid at her touch, standing motionless, waiting for her with a patience she found well-nigh incredible.
"Tell me," he said at last, and in his voice restraint and passion were strangely mingled, "what is it you are trying to make me understand? In Heaven's name don't be afraid!"
"I am not," she whispered back breathlessly, "believe me, I am not. But, oh, Pierre, it's so hard for a woman to tell a man what is in her heart when--when she doesn't even know that he cares to hear."
"Stephanie!" he said. He unclenched his hands, and slowly, very slowly, took her quivering wrists. His eyes would have searched hers, but she was looking at him no longer. Her head was bent. She was crying softly, like a child that has been frightened.
"Stephanie!" he said again.
She made a little movement towards him, hesitated a moment, then went close and hid her face against his breast.
"Oh, do make it easy for me!" she entreated brokenly. "Do--do try to understand!"
His arms closed about her. He held her tensely against his heart, so that she heard the wild tumult of its beating. But he said nothing whatever. He waited for her still.
And so at last she found strength to turn her face a little upwards and whisper his name.
"Pierre!" And then, with more assurance, "Pierre, it is true I haven't much to offer you. But such as it is--such as it is--and you asked for it once, remember--will you not take it?"
"Meaning?" he said again, and his voice was hoarse and low. It seemed to come through closed lips.
"Meaning," she answered him quickly and passionately, "that revolutionist as you have been, tyrant as you are, you have managed somehow to bind me to you. Oh, I was a fool--a fool--not to marry you long ago at Maritas even though I hated you. I might have known that you would conquer me in the end."
"Has it come to that?" said Pierre, and there was a queer break in his voice that might have been laughter. "And have you never asked yourself what made me a revolutionist--and a tyrant?"
"Never," she murmured.
"Must I tell you?" he said. "Will you believe me if I do?"
She turned her face fully to him, no longer fearing to meet that piercing scrutiny before which she had so often quailed. "Was it for my sake?" she said.
He met her look with eyes that gleamed as steel gleams in red firelight.
"How else could I have saved you?" he said. "How else could I have been in time?"
"Oh, but you should have told me!" she said. "You should have told me!"
"And if I had," said Pierre, "would you have hated me less? Do you hate me the less now that you know it?"
She was silent.
"Tell me, Stephanie," he persisted.
Her eyes fell before his.
"Have I ever hated you?" she said, her voice very low.
"If I did not make you hate me last night," he said, "then you never have."
"And I never shall," she supplemented under her breath.
"That," said Pierre, "is another matter. You forget that I am a blackguard."
Again she heard in his voice that sound that might have been laughter. It thrilled her strangely, seeming in some fashion to convey a message that was beyond words. She turned in his arms, responding instinctively, and clung closely to him.
"I forget everything," she told him very earnestly, "except that to-morrow--or the next day--you will be--my husband."
His arms grew tense about her. She felt his breathing quicken.
"Be careful!" he muttered. "Be careful! Remember, I am not to be trusted."
But she answered him with that laughter that is without fear and more intimate than speech.
"All that is over," she said, and lifted her face to his. And then, more softly, in a voice that quivered and broke, "I trust you with my whole heart. And Pierre--my Pierre--you will never again--kiss me--against my will!"