Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter XIII. The Official Seal
That life could possibly return to a normal course after that amazing night would have seemed to Dot preposterous but for the extremely practical attitude adopted by Fletcher Hill. But when she saw him again on the day after their safe return to Trelevan there was nothing in his demeanour to remind her of the stress through which they had passed. He was, as ever, perfectly calm and self-contained, and wholly uncommunicative. Adela sought in vain to satisfy her curiosity as to the happenings in Barren Valley which her courage had not permitted her to witness for herself. Fletcher Hill was as a closed book, and on some points Dot was equally reticent. By no persuasion could Adela induce her to speak of Bill Warden. She turned the subject whenever it approached him, professing an ignorance which Adela found excessively provoking.
They saw nothing of him during the remainder of the week, and very little of Fletcher Hill, who went to and fro upon his business with a machine-like precision that seemed to pervade his every action. He made no attempt to be alone with Dot, and she, with a shyness almost overwhelming, thankfully accepted his forbearance. The day they had fixed upon for their marriage was rapidly approaching, but she had almost ceased to contemplate it, for somehow it seemed to her that it could never dawn. Something must happen first! Surely something was about to happen! And from day to day she lived for the sight of Bill Warden's great figure and the sound of his steady voice. Anything, she felt, would be bearable if only she could see him once again. But she looked for him in vain.
When her brother joined them at the end of the week a dullness of despair had come upon her. Again she saw herself trapped and helpless, lacking even the spirit to attempt escape. She greeted Jack almost abstractedly, and he observed her throughout the evening with anxiety in his eyes. When it was over he drew her aside for a moment as she was bidding him good-night.
"What's the matter, little 'un? What's wrong?" he whispered, with his arm about her.
She clung to him for an instant with a closeness that was passionate. But, "It's nothing, Jack," she whispered back. "It's nothing."
Then Fletcher Hill came up to them, and they separated. Adela and Dot went up to bed, and the two men were left alone.
* * * * *
So at length the great day dawned, and nothing had happened. The only news that had reached them was a remark overheard by Adela in the dining-room, to the effect that Harley had thrown up his post and gone.
Dot dressed for her wedding with a dazed sense of unreality. Her attire was of the simplest. She wore a hat instead of a veil. It was to be a quiet ceremony in the early morning, for neither she nor Hill desired any unnecessary parade. When she descended the stairs with Adela, Jack was the only person awaiting her in the hall.
He looked at her searchingly as she came down to him, then without a word he took her in his arms and kissed her white face. She saw that he was moved, and wondered within herself at her own utter lack of emotion. Ever since she had lain against Bill Warden's breast, the wild sweet rapture of his hold had seemed to paralyze in her all other feeling. She knew only the longing for his presence, the utter emptiness of a world that held him not.
She drove to the church with her hand in Jack's, Adela talking incessantly the whole way while they two sat in silence. It was a bare building in the heart of the town, but its bareness did not convey any chill to her. She was already too numbly cold for that.
She went up the aisle between Jack and Adela, because the latter good-naturedly remarked that she might as well have as much support as she could get. But before they reached the altar-steps Fletcher Hill came to meet them, and Adela dropped behind.
He also looked for a moment closely into Dot's face, then very quietly he took her cold hand from Jack and drew it through his arm. She glanced at him with a momentary nervousness as Jack also fell behind.
Then some unknown force drew her as the magnet draws the needle, and she looked towards the altar. A man was standing by the steps awaiting her. She saw the free carriage of the great shoulders, the deep fire of the blue eyes. And suddenly her heart gave a wild throb that was anguish, and stood still.
Fletcher Hill's arm went round her. He held her for a second closely to him--more closely than he had ever held her before. But--it came to her later--he did not utter a single word. He only drew her on.
And so she came to Bill Warden waiting before the altar. They met--and all the rest was blotted out.
She went through that service in a breathless wonderment, an amazement that yet was strangely free from distress. For Bill Warden's hand clasped hers throughout, save when Fletcher Hill took it from him for a moment to give her away.
When it was over, and they knelt together in the streaming sunshine of the morning, she felt as if they two were alone in an inner sanctuary that was filled with the Love of God. Later, those sacred moments were the holiest memory of her life....
Then a strong arm lifted and held her. She turned from the holy place with a faint sigh of regret, turned to meet Fletcher Hill's eyes looking at her with that in them which she was never to forget.
His voice was the first to break through the wonder-spell that bound her.
"Do you think you will ever manage to forgive me?" he said.
She turned swiftly from the arm that encircled her, and impulsively she put her hands upon his shoulders, offering him her lips. "Oh, I don't--know--what--to say," she said, brokenly.
He bent and gravely kissed her. "My dear, there is nothing to be said so far as I am concerned," he said. "If you are happy, I am satisfied."
It was briefly spoken, but it went straight to her heart. She clung to him for a moment without words, and that was all the thanks she ever offered him. For there was nothing to be said.
* * * * *
Very late on the evening of that wonderful day she sat with Bill Warden on the edge of a rock overlooking a fertile valley of many waters in the Blue Mountains, and heard, with her hand in his the amazing story of the past few days, which had seemed to her so curiously dream-like.
"I fought hard against marrying you," Bill told her, with the smile she had remembered for so long. "But he had me at every turn--simply rolled me out and wiped the ground with me. Said he'd clap me into prison if I didn't, and when I said 'All right' to that, he turned on me like a tiger and asked if I wanted to break your heart. Oh, he made me feel a ten-times swab, I can tell you. And when I said I didn't want you to marry an uncaught criminal, he just looked me over and said, 'You've sown your wild oats. As your partner, I am sponsor for your respectability.' I knew what that meant, knew he'd stand by me through thick and thin, whatever turned up. It was the official seal with a vengeance, for what Fletcher Hill says goes in these parts. But it went against the grain, little new chum. It made me sick with myself. I hated playing his game against himself. It was the vilest thing I ever did. I couldn't have done it--except for you."
The little hand that held his tightened. She leaned her cheek against his shoulder. "Shall I tell you something?" she whispered. "I couldn't have done it either--except for--you."
His arm clasped her. "I'm such a poor sort of creature, darling," he said "I'll work for you--live for you--die for you. But I shall never be worthy of you."
She lifted her face to his in the gathering darkness. "Dear love," she said, "do you remember how--once--you asked me to treat you--without prejudice? But I never have--and I don't believe I ever shall. Fletcher Hill is right to trust you. He is a judge of men. But I--I am only the woman who loves you, and--somehow--whichever way I take you--I'm always prejudiced--in your favour."
The low words ended against his lips. He kissed her closely, passionately. "My little chum," he said, "I will be worthy--I will be worthy--so help me God!"
He was near to tears as he uttered his oath; but presently, when he turned back her sleeve to kiss the place where first his lips had lingered, they laughed together--the tender laughter of lovers in the happy morning-time of life.