Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VI. The Way to Happiness
On account of its comparative proximity to the gold mine, Trelevan, though of no great size, was a busy place. Dot had stayed at the hotel there with her brother on one or two occasions, but it was usually noisy and crowded, and, unlike Adela, she found little to amuse her in the type of men who thronged it. Fletcher Hill always stayed there when he came to Trelevan. The police court was close by, and it suited his purpose; but he mixed very little with his fellow-guests and was generally regarded as unapproachable--a mere judicial machine with whom very few troubled to make acquaintance.
Fletcher Hill in the role of a squire of dames was a situation that vastly tickled Adela's sense of humour. As she told Jack, it was going to be the funniest joke of her life.
Neither Hill nor his grave young fiancee seemed aware of any cause for mirth, but with Adela that was neither here nor there. She and Dot never had anything in common, and as for Fletcher Hill, he was the driest stick of a man she had ever met. But she was not going to be bored on that account. To give Adela her due, boredom was a malady from which she very rarely suffered.
She was in the best of spirits on the evening of their arrival at Trelevan. The rooms that Fletcher Hill had managed to secure for them led out of each other, and the smaller of them, Dot's looked out over the busiest part of the town. As Adela pointed out, this was an advantage of little value at night, and it could be shared in the daytime.
Dot said nothing. She was used to her sister-in-law's cheerful egotism, and Adela had never hesitated to invade her privacy if she felt so inclined. Her chief consolation was that Adela was a very sound sleeper, so that there was small chance of having her solitude disturbed at night.
She herself was not sleeping so well as usual just then. A great restlessness was upon her, and often she would pace to and fro like a caged thing for half the night. She was not actively unhappy, but a great weight seemed to oppress her--a sense of foreboding that was sometimes more than she could bear.
Fletcher Hill's calm countenance as he welcomed them upon their arrival reassured her somewhat. He was so perfectly self-controlled and steady in his demeanour. The very grasp of his hand conveyed confidence. She felt as if he did her good.
They dined together in the common dining-room, but at a separate table in a corner. There were many coming and going, and Adela was frankly interested in them all. As she said, it was so seldom that she had the chance of studying the human species in such variety. When the meal was over she good-naturedly settled herself in a secluded corner and commanded them to leave her.
"There's something in the shape of a glass-house at the back," she said. "I don't know if it can be called a conservatory. But anyhow I should think you might find a seat and solitude there, and that, I conclude, is what you most want. Anyhow, don't bother about me! I can amuse myself here for any length of time."
They took her at her word, though neither of them seemed in any hurry to depart. Dot lingered because the prospect of a tete-a-tete in a strange place, where she could not easily make her escape if she desired to do so, embarrassed her. And Hill waited, as his custom was, with a grim patience that somehow only served to increase her reluctance to be alone with him.
"Run along! It's getting late," Adela said at last. "Carry her off, Mr. Hill! You'll never get her to make the first move."
There was some significance in words and smile. Dot stiffened and turned sharply away.
Hill followed her, and outside the room she waited for him.
"Do you know the way?" she asked, without looking at him.
He took her by the arm, and again she had a wayward thought of the hand of the law. She knew now what it felt like to be marshalled by a policeman. She almost uttered a remark to that effect, but, glancing up at him, decided that it would be out of place. For the man's harsh features were so sternly set that she wondered if Adela's careless talk had aroused his anger.
She said nothing, therefore, and he led her to the retreat her sister-in-law had mentioned in unbroken silence. It was certainly not a very artistic corner. A few straggling plants in pots decorated it, but they looked neglected and shabby. Yet the thought went through her, it might have been a bower of delight had they been in the closer accord of lovers who desire naught but each other.
The place was deserted, lighted only by a high window that looked into a billiard-room. The window was closed, but the rattle of the balls and careless voices of the players came through the silence. A dusty bench was let into the wall below it.
"Do you like this place?" asked Fletcher Hill.
She glanced around her with a little nervous laugh. "It's as good as any other, isn't it?"
His hand still held her arm. He bent slightly, looking into her face. "I've been wanting to talk to you," he said.
"Have you?" She tried to meet his look, but failed. "What about?" she said, almost in a whisper.
He bent lower. "Dot, are you afraid of me?" he said.
That brought her eyes to his face with a jerk. "I--I--no--of course not!" she stammered, in confusion.
"Quite sure?" he said.
She collected herself with an effort. "Quite," she told him with decision, and met his gaze with something of a challenge in her own.
But he disconcerted her the next moment. She felt again the man's grim mastery behind the iron of his patience. "I want to talk to you," he said, "about our marriage."
"Ah!" It was scarcely more than a sharp intake of the breath, and as it escaped again Dot turned white to the lips. His close scrutiny became suddenly more than she could bear, and she turned sharply from him.
He kept his hand upon her arm, but he made no further effort to restrain her, merely waiting mutely for her to speak.
In the room behind them there came the smart knocking of the balls, and a voice cried, "By Jove, he's fluked again! It's the devil's own luck!"
Dot flinched a little. The careless voice jarred upon her. Her nerves were all on edge. Fletcher Hill's hand was like a steel trap, cold and firm and merciless. She longed to wrench herself free from it, yet felt too paralysed to move.
And still he waited, not urging her, yet by his very silence making her aware of a compulsion she could not hope to resist for long.
She turned to him at last in desperation. "What--have you to suggest?" she asked.
"I?" he said. "I shall be ready at the end of the week--if that will suit you."
She gazed at him blankly. "The end of the week! But of course not--of course not! You are joking!"
"No, I am serious," Fletcher said. "Sit down a minute and let me explain!"
Then, as she hesitated, he very gently put her down upon the seat under the closed window, and stood before her, blocking her in.
"I have been wanting this opportunity of talking to you," he said, "without Jack chipping in. He's a good fellow, and I know he is on my side. But I have a fancy for scoring off my own bat. Listen, Dot! I am not suggesting anything very preposterous. You have promised to marry me. Haven't you?"
"Yes," she whispered, breathlessly. "Yes."
"Yes," he repeated. "And the longer you have to think about it, the more scared you will get. My dear child, what is the point of spinning it out in this fashion? You are going through agonies of mind--for nothing. If I gave you back your freedom, you wouldn't be any happier, would you?"
She was silent.
"Would you?" he said again, and laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"I--don't think so," she said, faintly.
He took up her words again with magisterial emphasis. "You don't think so. Well, there is every reason to suppose you wouldn't. You weren't happy before, were you?"
She gripped her courage with immense effort. "I haven't been happy--since," she said.
He accepted the statement without an instant's discomfiture. "I know you haven't. I realized that the moment I saw you. You have been suffering the tortures of the damned because you're in a positive hell of indecision. Oh, I know all about it." His hand moved a little upon her shoulder; it almost seemed to caress her. "I haven't studied human nature all these years for nothing. I know you're in a perfect fever of doubt, and it'll go on till you're married. What's the good of it? Why torture yourself like this when the way to happiness lies straight before you? Are you hoping against hope that something may yet turn up to prevent our marriage? Would you be happy if it did? Answer me!"
But she shrank from answering, sitting with her hands clasped tightly before her and her eyes downcast like a prisoner awaiting sentence. "I don't know--what I want," she told him, miserably. "I feel--as if--whatever I do--will be wrong."
"That's just it," said Fletcher Hill, as if that were the very admission he had been waiting for. And then he did what for him was a very curious thing. He went down upon one knee on the dusty floor, bringing his face on a level with hers, clasping her tense hands between his own. "You don't trust yourself, and you won't trust me," he said. "Isn't that it? Or something like it?"
The official air had dropped from him like a garment. She looked at him doubtfully, almost as if she suspected him of trying to trick her. Then, reassured by something in the harsh countenance which his voice and words utterly failed to express, she leaned impulsively forward with a swift movement of surrender and laid her head against his shoulder.
"I'll do--whatever you wish," she said, in muffled tones. "I will trust you! I do trust you!"
He put his arm around her, for she was trembling, and held her so for a space in silence.
The voice in the billiard-room took up the tale. "That fellow's luck is positively prodigious. He can't help scoring--whatever he does. He'd dig gold out of an ash heap."
Someone laughed, and there came again the clash of the billiard-balls, followed in a second by a shout of applause.
The noise subsided, and Fletcher spoke. "My job here will be over in a week. Jack can manage to join us at the end of it. Your sister-in-law is already here. Why not finish up by getting married and returning to Wallacetown with me?"
"I should have to go back to the farm and get the rest of my things," said Dot.
"You could do that afterwards," he said, "when I am away on business. I shan't be able to take you with me everywhere. Some of the places I have to go to would be too rough for you. But I shall be at Wallacetown for some weeks after this job. You have never seen my house there. I took it over from the last Superintendent. I think you'll like it. I got it for that reason."
She started a little. "But you didn't know then--How long ago was it?"
"Three years," said Fletcher Hill. "I've been getting it ready for you ever since."
She looked up at him. "You--took a good deal for granted, didn't you?" she said.
Fletcher was smiling, dryly humorous. "I knew my own mind, anyway," he said.
"And you've never had--any doubts?" questioned Dot.
"Not one," said Fletcher Hill.
She laid her hand on his arm with a shy gesture. "I hope you won't be dreadfully disappointed in me," she said.
He bent towards her, and for a moment she felt as if his keen eyes pierced her. "I don't think that is very likely," he said, and kissed her with the words.
She did not shrink from his kiss, but she did not return it; nor did he linger as if expecting any return.
He was on his feet the next moment, and she wondered with a little sense of chill if he were really satisfied.