Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter X. The Greater Love
Through a labyrinth of many passages he led her, over ground that was often rough and slimy with that sound of running water in their ears, sometimes near, sometimes distant, but never wholly absent. Now and then a gleam of light would come from some distant crevice, and Dot would catch a glimpse of the rocky corridor through which they moved--catch a glimpse also of her companion walking with his free stride beside her, though occasionally he had to stoop when the roof was low. He did not look at her, seldom spoke to her, but the grasp of his hand held her up and kept all fear at bay. Somehow fear in this man's presence seemed impossible.
A long time passed, and she was sure that they had traversed a considerable distance before, very far ahead of them at the end of a steep upward slope, she discerned a patch of sky.
"Is that where we are going?" she asked.
"Yes," he said.
She gazed before her, puzzled. "But where are we? Are we still in the mine?"
"No. This is the smugglers' warren." She caught a hint of humour in his voice. "The stream flows underground all through here--and very useful we have found it."
She gave a great start at his words. "You--you are not a smuggler!" she said.
He drew her on. "I am a good many things," he said, easily, "and the king of this rat-run amongst them. There's no one knows it as well as I do."
Her heart sank. "You said--you said yesterday--you had lived straight!" she said, in a low voice.
"Did I? But what does it matter to you how I live?" With a touch of recklessness he put the question. "If Fletcher Hill managed to put the official seal on me, what would it matter to you--now?"
There was almost a note of anger in his voice, yet his hand still held hers in the same close, reassuring grasp. She could not be afraid.
"It would matter," she said at last.
"I wonder why?" said Bill Warden.
"Because--we are friends," she said.
He made a sharp sound as of dissent, but he did not openly contradict her. They were nearing the opening, and the ground was rough and broken. She stumbled once or twice, and each time he held her up. Finally they came to a flight of steps that were little more than notches cut steeply in the rock.
"I shall have to carry you here," he said.
Dot looked upwards with sharp dismay. The rocky wall rose twenty feet above her, the rough-hewn steps slanting along its face. For the first time her heart misgave her.
"What a dreadful place!" she said.
"It's the only way out," said Warden, "unless we tramp underground nearly half-way to Wallacetown!"
"Can't we go back?" she said, nervously.
"What! Afraid?" He gave her hand a sudden squeeze.
She looked at him and caught the blue fire of his eyes as he bent towards her. Something moved her, she knew not what. She surrendered herself to him without a word.
Once more she hung upon his shoulder, clinging desperately, while he made that perilous ascent. He went up with amazing agility, as if he were entirely unencumbered. She felt the strength of his great frame beneath her, and marvelled. Again the magnetic force of the man possessed her, stilling all fear. She shut her eyes dizzily, but she was not afraid.
When she looked up again they were in the open. He had set her on her feet, and she stood on the rugged side of a mountain where no vestige of a path or any habitation showed in any direction. For the first time he had relinquished all hold upon her, and stood apart, almost as if he would turn and leave her.
The brief twilight was upon them. It was as if dark wings were folding them round. A small chill wind was wandering to and fro. She shivered involuntarily. It sounded like the whispering of an evil spirit. The fear she had kept at bay for so long laid clammy hands upon her.
Instinctively she turned to the man for protection. "How shall we get away?" she said.
He moved sharply, so sharply that for a single moment she thought that something had angered him. And then--all in one single blinding instant--she realized that which no words could utter. For he caught her swiftly to him, lifting her off her feet, and very suddenly he covered her face and neck and throat with hot, devouring kisses--kisses that electrified her--kisses that seemed to scorch and blister--yet to fill her with a pulsing rapture that was almost too great to endure.
She tried to hide her face from him, but she could not; to protest, but his lips stopped the words upon her own. She was powerless--and very deep down within her there leaped a wild thing that rejoiced--that exulted--in her powerlessness.
The fierce storm spent itself. There came a pause during which she lay palpitating against his breast while his cheek pressed hers in a stillness that was in a fashion more compelling than even those burning kisses had been.
He spoke to her at last, and his voice was deep and tender, throbbing with that which was beyond utterance.
"You love me, little new chum," he said.
There was no question in his words. She quivered, and made no answer. That headlong outburst of passion had overwhelmed her utterly. She was as drift upon the tide.
He drew a great heaving breath, and clasped her closer. His words fell hot upon her face. "You are mine! Why shouldn't I keep you? Fate has given you to me. I'd be a fool to let you go again."
But something--some inner impulse that had been stunned to impotence by his violence--stirred within her at his words and awoke. Yet it was scarcely of her own volition that she answered him. "I am--not--yours."
Very faintly the words came from her trembling lips, but the utterance of them gave her new strength. She moved at last in his hold. She turned her face away from him.
"What do you mean?" He spoke in a fierce whisper, but--she felt it instinctively--there was less of assurance in his hold. It was that that added to her strength, but she offered no active resistance, realizing wherein lay his weakness--and her own.
"I mean," she said, and though it still trembled beyond her control, her voice gathered confidence with the words, "that by taking me--by keeping me--you are taking--keeping--what is not your own."
"Love gives me the right," he asserted, swiftly--"your love--and mine."
But the clearer vision had come to her. She shook her head against his shoulder. "No--no! That is wrong. That is not--the greater love."
"What do you mean by--the greater love?" He was holding her still closely, but no longer with that fierce possession.
She answered him with a steadiness that surprised herself: "I mean the only love that is worth having--the love that lasts."
He caught up the words passionately. "And hasn't my love lasted? Have I ever thought of any other woman since the day I met you? Haven't I been fighting against odds ever since to be able to come to you an honest man--and worthy of your love?"
"Oh, I know--I know!" she said, and there was a sound of heartbreak in her voice. "But--the odds have been too heavy. I thought you had forgotten--long ago."
"Forgotten!" he said.
"Yes." With a sob she answered him. "Men do forget--nearly all of them. Fletcher Hill didn't. He kept on waiting, and--and--they said it wasn't fair--to spoil a man's life for a dream--that could never come true. So--I gave in at last. I am--promised to him."
"Against your will?" His arms tightened upon her again. "Tell me, little new chum! Was it against your will?"
"No! Oh, no!" She whispered the words through tears. "I gave in--willingly. I thought it was better than--an empty life."
"Ah!" The word fell like a groan. "And that's what you're going to condemn me to, is it?"
She turned in his arms, summoning her strength. "We've got to play the game," she said. "I've got to keep my word--whatever it costs. And you--you are going to keep yours."
"My word?" he questioned, swiftly.
"Yes." She lifted her head. "If--if you really care about being honest--if your love is worth--anything at all--that is the only way. You promised--you promised--to save him."
"Save him for you?" he said.
"Yes--save him for me." She did not know how she uttered the words, but somehow they were spoken.
They went into a silence that wrung her soul, and it cost her every atom of her strength not to recall them.
Bill Warden stood quite motionless for many pulsing seconds, then--very, very slowly--at length his hold began to slacken.
In the end he set her on her feet--and she was free. "All right, little new chum!" he said, and she heard a new note in his voice--a note that waked in her a wild impulse to spring back into his arms and cling to him--and cling to him. "I'll do it--for you--if it kills me--just to show you--little girl--just to show you--what my love for you is really worth."
He stood a moment, facing her; then his hands clenched and he turned away.
"Let's go down the hill!" he said. "I'll see you in safety first."