Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter IV. The Coat of Mail
She gave a great start at sight of him, then quickly drew herself together.
"You have come to see if Rupert is all right for the night?" she said. "Go in and have a look at him."
But Fletcher made no movement to enter. He faced her with a certain rigidity. "No. I came to see you--alone."
She made a sharp movement that was almost a gesture of protest. Then she turned and drew the door softly shut behind her. Robin came and pressed close to her, as if he divined that she stood in need of some support. With her back to the closed door and the moonlight in her eyes, she stood before Fletcher Hill.
"What do you want to say to me?" she said.
He bent slightly towards her. "It is not a specially easy thing, Miss Burton," he said, "when I am more than half convinced that it is something you would rather not hear."
She met his look with unflinching steadiness. "I think life is made up of that sort of thing," she said. "It's like a great puzzle that never fits. I've been saying--unwelcome things--to-day, too."
She smiled, but her lips were quivering. The man's hands slowly clenched.
"That means you're unhappy," he said.
She nodded. "I've been telling Jack that I must get away--go and earn my own living somewhere. He won't hear of it."
"I can understand that," said Fletcher Hill. "I wouldn't--in his place."
She kept her eyes steadfastly raised to his. "Do you know what Jack wants me to do?" she said.
"Yes." Hill spoke briefly, almost sternly. "He wants you to marry me."
She nodded again. "Yes."
He held out his hand to her abruptly. "I want it, too," he said.
She made no movement towards him. "That is what you came to say?" she asked.
"Yes," said Hill.
He waited a moment; then, as she did not take his hand, bent with a certain mastery and took one of hers.
"I've wanted it for years," he said.
"Ah!" A little sound like a sob came with the words. She made as if she would withdraw her hand, but in the end--because he held it closely--she suffered him to keep it. She spoke with an effort. "I--think you ought to understand that--that--it is not my wish to marry at all. If--if Jack had stayed single, I--should have been content to live on here for always."
"Yes, I know," said Hill. "I saw that."
She went on tremulously. "I've always felt--that a woman ought to be able to manage alone. It's very kind of you to want to marry me. But--but I--I think I'm getting too old."
"Is that the only obstacle?" asked Hill.
She tried to laugh, but it ended in a sound of tears. She turned her face quickly aside. "I can't tell you--of any other," she said, with difficulty, "except--except--"
"Except that you don't like me much?" he suggested dryly. "Well, that doesn't surprise me."
"Oh, I didn't say that!" She choked back her tears and turned back to him. "Let's walk a little way together, shall we? I--I'll try and explain--just how I feel about things."
He moved at once to comply. They walked side by side over the close-cropped grass. Dot would have slipped her hand free, but still he kept it.
They had traversed some yards before she spoke again, and then her voice was low and studiously even.
"I can't pretend to you that there has never been anyone else. It wouldn't be right. You probably wouldn't believe me if I did."
"Oh, I gathered that a long time ago," Hill said.
"Yes, of course you did. You always see everything, don't you? It's your specialty."
"I don't go about with my eyes shut, certainly," said Hill.
"I'm glad of that," Dot said. "I would rather you knew about it. Only"--her voice quivered again--"I don't know how to tell you."
"You are sure you would rather I knew?" he said.
"Yes." She spoke with decision. "You've got to know if--if--" She broke off.
"If we are going to be married?" he suggested.
"Yes," whispered Dot.
Hill walked a few paces in silence. Then, unexpectedly, he drew the nervous little hand he held through his arm. "Well, you needn't tell me any more," he said. "I know the rest."
She started and stood still. There was quick fear in the look she threw him. "You mean Jack told you--"
"No, I don't," said Hill. "Jack has never yet told me anything I couldn't have told him ages before. I knew from the beginning. It was the fellow they called Buckskin Bill, wasn't it?"
She quivered from head to foot and was silent.
Hill went on ruthlessly. "First, by a stroke of luck, he saved you from death by snake-bite. He always had the luck on his side, that chap. I should have caught him but for that. I'd got him--I'd got him in the hollow of my hand. But you"--for the first time there was a streak of tenderness in his speech--"you were a new chum then--you held me up. Remember how you covered his retreat when we came up? Did you really think I didn't know?"
She uttered a sobbing laugh. "I was very frightened, too. I always was scared at the law."
Hill nodded. He also was grimly smiling.
"But you dared it. You'd have dared anything for him that day. He always got the women on his side."
She winced a little.
"It's true," he asserted. "I know what happened--as well as if I'd seen it. He made love to you in a very gallant, courteous fashion. I never saw Buckskin Bill, but I believe he was always courteous when he had time. And he promised to come back, didn't he--when he'd given up being a thief and a swindler and had turned his hand to an honest trade? All that--for your sake!... Yes, I thought so. But, my dear child, do you really imagine he meant it--after all these years?"
She looked at him with a piteous little smile. "He--he'd be worth having--if he did, wouldn't he?" she said.
"I wonder," said Hill.
He waited for a few moments, then laid his hand upon her shoulder with a touch that seemed to her as heavy as the hand of the law.
"I can't help thinking," he said, "that you'd find a plain man like myself more satisfactory to live with. It's for you to decide. Only--it seems a pity to waste your life waiting for someone who will never come."
She could not contradict him. The argument was too obvious. She longed to put that steady hand away from her, but she felt physically incapable of doing so. An odd powerlessness possessed her. She was as one caught in a trap.
Yet after a second or two she mustered strength to ask a question to which she had long desired an answer. "Did you ever hear any more of him?"
"Not for certain. I believe he left the country, but I don't know. Anyway, he found this district too hot to hold him, for he never broke cover in this direction again. I should have had him if he had."
Fletcher Hill spoke with a grim assurance. He was holding her before him, one hand on her shoulder, the other grasping hers. Abruptly he bent towards her.
"Come!" he said. "It's going to be 'Yes,' isn't it?"
She looked up at him with troubled eyes. Suddenly she shivered as if an icy blast had caught her. "Oh, I'm frightened!" she said. "I'm frightened!"
"Nonsense!" said Hill.
He drew her gently to him and held her. She was shaking from head to foot. She began to sob, hopelessly, like a lost child.
"Don't!" he said. "Don't! It's all right. I'll take care of you. I'll make you happy. I swear to God I'll make you happy!"
It was forcibly spoken, and it showed her more of the man's inner nature than she had ever seen before. Almost in spite of herself she was touched. She leaned against him, fighting her weakness.
"It isn't--fair to you," she murmured at last.
"That's my affair," said Hill.
She kept her face hidden from him, and he did not seek to raise it; but there was undoubted possession in the holding of his arms.
After a moment or two she spoke again. "What will you do if--if you find you're not--happy with me?"
"I'll take my chance of that," said Fletcher Hill. He added, under his breath, "I'll be good to you--in any case."
That moved her. She lifted her face impulsively. "You--you are much nicer than I thought you were," she said.
He bent to her. "It isn't very difficult to be that," he said, with a somewhat sardonic touch of humour. "I haven't a very high standard to beat, have I?"
It was not very lover-like. Perhaps, he feared to show her too much of his soul just then, lest he seem to be claiming more than she was prepared to offer. Perhaps that reserve of his which clothed him like a coat of mail was more than even he could break through. But so it was that then--just then, when the desire of his heart was actually within his grasp, he contented himself with taking a very little. He kissed her, indeed, though it was but a brief caress--over before her quivering lips could make return; nor did he seek to deter her as she withdrew herself from his arms.
She stood a moment, looking small and very forlorn. Then she turned to retrace her steps.
"Shall we go back?" she said.
He went back with her in silence till they reached the gate that led into the yard. Then for a second he grasped her arm, detaining her.
"It is--'Yes?'" he questioned.
She bent her head in acquiescence, not looking at him. "Yes," she said, in a whisper.
And Fletcher let her go.