Her Freedom by Ethel M. Dell
"We have been requested to announce that the marriage arranged between Viscount Merrivale and Miss Hilary St. Orme will not take place."
Viscount Merrivale was eating his breakfast when he chanced upon this announcement. He was late that morning, and, contrary to custom, was skimming through the paper at the same time. But the paragraph brought both occupations to an abrupt standstill. He stared at the sheet for a few moments as if he thought it was bewitched. His brown face reddened, and he looked as if he were about to say something. Then he pushed the paper aside with a contemptuous movement and drank his coffee.
His servant, appearing in answer to the bell a few minutes later, looked at him with furtive curiosity. He had already seen the announcement, being in the habit of studying society items before placing the paper on the breakfast-table. But Merrivale's clean-shaven face was free from perturbation, and the man was puzzled.
"Reynolds," Merrivale said, "I shall go out of town this afternoon. Have the motor ready at four!"
"Very good, my lord." Reynolds glanced at the table and noted with some satisfaction that his master had only eaten one egg.
"Yes, I have finished," Merrivale said, taking up the paper. "If Mr. Culver calls, ask him to be good enough to wait for me. And--that's all," he ended abruptly as he reached the door.
"As cool as a cucumber!" murmured Reynolds, as he began to clear the table. "I shouldn't wonder but what he stuck the notice in hisself."
Merrivale, still with the morning paper in his hand, strolled easily down to his club and collected a few letters. He then sauntered into the smoking-room, where a knot of men, busily conversing in undertones, gave him awkward greeting.
Merrivale lighted a cigar and sat down deliberately to study his paper.
Nearly an hour later he rose, nodded to several members, who glanced up at him expectantly, and serenely took his departure.
A general buzz of discussion followed.
"He doesn't look exactly heart-broken," one man observed.
"Hearts grow tough in the West," remarked another. "He has probably done the breaking-off himself. Jack Merrivale, late of California, isn't the sort of chap to stand much trifling."
A young man with quizzical eyes broke in with a laugh.
"Ask Mr. Cosmo Fletcher! He is really well up on that subject."
"Also Mr. Richard Culver, apparently," returned the first speaker.
Culver grinned and bowed.
"Certainly, sir," he said. "But--luckily for himself--he has never qualified for a leathering from Jack Merrivale, late of California. I don't believe myself that he did do the breaking-off. As they haven't met more than a dozen times, it can't have gone very deep with him. And, anyhow, I am certain the girl never cared twopence for anything except his title, the imp. She's my cousin, you know, so I can call her what I like--always have."
"I shouldn't abuse the privilege in Merrivale's presence if I were you," remarked the man who had expressed the opinion that Merrivale was not one to stand much trifling.
* * * * *
"Well, but wasn't it unreasonable?" said Hilary St. Orme, with hands clasped daintily behind her dark head. "Who could stand such tyranny as that? And surely it's much better to find out before than after. I hate masterful men, Sybil. I am quite sure I could never have been happy with him."
The girl's young step-mother looked across at the pretty, mutinous face and sighed.
"It wasn't a nice way of telling him so, I'm afraid, dear," she said. "Your father is very vexed."
"But it was beautifully conclusive, wasn't it?" laughed Hilary. "As to the poor old pater, he won't keep it up for ever, bless his simple heart, that did want its daughter to be a viscountess. So while the fit lasts I propose to judiciously absent my erring self. It's a nuisance to have to miss all the fun this season; but with the pater in the sulks it wouldn't be worth it. So I'm off to-morrow to join Bertie and the house-boat at Riverton. As Dick has taken a bungalow close by, we shall be quite a happy family party. They will be happy; I shall be happy; and you--positively, darling, you won't have a care left in the world. If it weren't for your matrimonial bonds, I should quite envy you."
"I don't think you ought to go down to Riverton without someone responsible to look after you," objected Mrs. St. Orme dubiously.
"My dear little mother, what a notion!" cried her step-daughter with a merry laugh. "Who ever dreamt of the proprieties on the river? Why, I spent a whole fortnight on the house-boat with only Bertie and the Badger that time the poor old pater and I fell out over--what was it? Well, it doesn't matter. Anyhow, I did. And no one a bit the worse. Bertie is equal to a dozen duennas, as everyone knows."
"Don't you really care, I wonder?" said Mrs. St. Orme, with wondering eyes on the animated face.
"Why should I, dear?" laughed the girl, dropping upon a hassock at her side. "I am my own mistress. I have a little money, and--considering I am only twenty-four--quite a lot of wisdom. As to being Viscountess Merrivale, I will say it fascinated me a little--just at first, you know. And the poor old pater was so respectful I couldn't help enjoying myself. But the gilt soon wore off the gingerbread, and I really couldn't enjoy what was left. I said to myself, 'My dear, that man has the makings of a hectoring bully. You must cut yourself loose at once if you don't want to develop into that most miserable of all creatures, a down-trodden wife.' So after our little tiff of the day before yesterday I sent the notice off forthwith. And--you observe--it has taken effect. The tyrant hasn't been near."
"You really mean to say the engagement wasn't actually broken off before you sent it?" said Mrs. St. Orme, looking shocked.
"It didn't occur to either of us," said Hilary, looking down with a smile at the corners of her mouth. "He chose to take exception to my being seen riding in the park with Mr. Fletcher. And I took exception to his interference. Not that I like Mr. Fletcher, for I don't. But I had to assert my right to choose my own friends. He disputed it. And then we parted. No one is going to interfere with my freedom."
"You were never truly in love with him, then?" said Mrs. St. Orme, regret and relief struggling in her voice.
Hilary looked up with clear eyes.
"Oh, never, darling!" she said tranquilly. "Nor he with me. I don't know what it means; do you? You can't--surely--be in love with the poor old pater?"
She laughed at the idea and idly took up a paper lying at hand. Half a minute later she uttered a sharp cry and looked up with flaming cheeks.
"How--how--dare he?" she cried, almost incoherent with angry astonishment. "Sybil! For Heaven's sake! See!"
She thrust the paper upon her step-mother's knee and pointed with a finger that shook uncontrollably at a brief announcement in the society column.
"We are requested to state that the announcement in yesterday's issue that the marriage arranged between Viscount Merrivale and Miss Hilary St. Orme would not take place was erroneous. The marriage will take place, as previously announced, towards the end of the season."
* * * * *
"What sublime assurance!" exclaimed Bertie St. Orme, lying on his back in the luxurious punt which his sister was leisurely impelling up stream, and laughing up at her flushed face. "This viscount of yours seems to have plenty of decision of character, whatever else he may be lacking in."
Bertie St. Orme was a cripple, and spent every summer regularly upon the river with his old manservant, nicknamed "the Badger."
"Oh, he is quite impossible!" Hilary declared. "Let's talk of something else!"
"But he means to keep you to your word, eh?" her brother persisted. "How will you get out of it?"
Hilary's face flushed more deeply, and she bit her lip.
"There won't be any getting out of it. Don't be silly! I am free."
"The end of the season!" teased Bertie. "That allows you--let's see--four, five, six more weeks of freedom."
"Be quiet, if you don't want a drenching!" warned Hilary. "Besides," she added, with inconsequent optimism, "anything may happen before then. Why, I may even be married to a man I really like."
"Great Scotland, so you may!" chuckled her brother. "There's the wild man that Dick has brought down here to tame before launching at society. He's a great beast like a brown bear. He wouldn't be my taste, but that's a detail."
"I hate fashionable men!" declared Hilary, with scarlet face. "I'd rather marry a red Indian than one of these inane men about town."
"Ho! ho!" laughed Bertie. "Then Dick's wild man will be quite to your taste. As soon as he leaves off worrying mutton-bones with his fingers and teeth, we'll ask Dick to bring him to dine."
"You're perfectly disgusting!" said Hilary, digging her punt-pole into the bed of the river with a vicious plunge. "If you don't mean to behave yourself, I won't stay with you."
"Oh, yes, you will," returned Bertie with brotherly assurance. "You wouldn't miss Dick's aborigine for anything--and I don't blame you, for he's worth seeing. Dick assures me that he is quite harmless, or I don't know that I should care to venture my scalp at such close quarters."
"You're positively ridiculous to-day," Hilary declared.
* * * * *
A perfect summer morning, a rippling blue river that shone like glass where the willows dipped and trailed, and a girl who sang a murmurous little song to herself as she slid down the bank into the laughing stream.
Ah, it was heavenly! The sun-flecks on the water danced and swam all about her. The trees whispered to one another above her floating form. The roses on the garden balustrade of Dick Culver's bungalow nodded as though welcoming a friend. She turned over and struck out vigorously, swimming up-stream. It was June, and the whole world was awake and singing.
"It's better than the entire London season put together," she murmured to herself, as she presently came drifting back.
A whiff of tobacco-smoke interrupted her soliloquy. She shook back her wet hair and stood up waist-deep in the clear, green water.
"What ho, Dick!" she called gaily. "I can't see you, but I know you're there. Come down and have a swim, you lazy boy!"
There followed a pause. Then a diffident voice with an unmistakably foreign accent made reply.
"Were you speaking to me?"
Glancing up in the direction of the voice, Hilary discovered a stranger seated against the trunk of a willow on the high bank above her. She started and coloured. She had forgotten Dick's wild man. She described him later as the brownest man she had ever seen. His face was brown, the lower part of it covered with a thick growth of brown beard. His eyes were brown, surmounted by very bushy eyebrows. His hair was brown. His hands were brown. His clothes were brown, and he was smoking what looked like a brown clay pipe.
Hilary regained her self-possession almost at once. The diffidence of the voice gave her assurance.
"I thought my cousin was there," she explained. "You are Dick's friend, I think?"
The man on the bank smiled an affirmative, and Hilary remarked to herself that he had splendid teeth.
"I am Dick's friend," he said, speaking slowly, as if learning the lesson from her. There was a slight subdued twang in his utterance which attracted Hilary immensely.
She nodded encouragingly to him.
"I am Dick's cousin," she said. "He will tell you all about me if you ask him."
"I will certainly ask," the stranger said in his soft, foreign drawl.
"Don't forget!" called Hilary, as she splashed back into deep water. "And tell him to bring you to dine on our house-boat at eight to-night! Bertie and I will be delighted to see you. We were meaning to send a formal invitation. But no one stands on ceremony on the river--or in it either," she laughed to herself as she swam away with swift, even strokes.
"I shouldn't have asked him in that way," she explained to her brother afterwards, "if he hadn't been rather shy. One must be nice to foreigners, and dear Dickie's society undiluted would bore me to extinction."
"I don't think we had better give him a knife at dinner," remarked Bertie. "I shouldn't like you to be scalped, darling. It would ruin your prospects. I suppose my only course would be to insist upon his marrying you forthwith."
"Bertie, you're a beast!" said his sister tersely.
* * * * *
"We have taken you at your word, you see," sang out Dick Culver from his punt. "I hope you haven't thought better of it by any chance, for my friend has been able to think of nothing else all day."
A slim white figure danced eagerly out of the tiny dining-saloon of the house-boat.
"Come on board!" she cried hospitably. "The Badger will see to your punt. I am glad you're not late."
She held out her hand to the new-comer with a pretty lack of ceremony. He looked more than ever like a backwoodsman, but it was quite evident that he was pleased with his surroundings. He shook hands with her almost reverently, and smiled in a quiet, well-satisfied way. But, having nothing to say, he did not vex himself to put it into words--a trait which strongly appealed to Hilary.
"His name," said Dick Culver, laughing at his cousin over the big man's shoulder, "is Jacques. He has another, but, as nobody ever uses it, it isn't to the point, and I never was good at pronunciation. He is a French Canadian, with a dash of Yankee thrown in. He is of a peaceable disposition except when roused, when all his friends find it advisable to give him a wide berth. He--"
"That'll do, my dear fellow," softly interposed the stranger, with a gentle lift of the elbow in Culver's direction. "Leave Miss St. Orme to find out the rest for herself! I hope she is not easily alarmed."
"Not at all, I assure you," said Hilary. "Never mind Dick! No one does. Come inside!"
She led the way with light feet. Her exile from London during the season promised to be less deadly than she had anticipated. Unmistakably she liked Dick's wild man.
They found Bertie in the little roselit saloon, and as he welcomed the stranger Culver drew Hilary aside. There was much mystery on his comical face.
"I'll tell you a secret," he murmured; "this fellow is a great chief in his own country, but he doesn't want anyone to know it. He's coming here to learn a little of our ways, and he's particularly interested in English women, so be nice to him."
"I thought you said he was a French Canadian," said Hilary.
"That's what he wants to appear," said Culver. "And, anyhow, he had a Yankee mother. I know that for a fact. He's quite civilised, you know. You needn't be afraid of him."
"Afraid!" exclaimed Hilary.
Turning, she found the new-comer looking at her with brown eyes that were soft under the bushy brows.
"He can't be a red man," she said to herself. "He hasn't got the cheek-bones."
Leaving Dick to amuse himself, she smiled upon her other guest with winning graciousness and forthwith began the dainty task of initiating him into the ways of English women.
She was relieved to find that, notwithstanding his hairy appearance, he was, as Dick had assured her, quite civilised. As the meal proceeded she suddenly conceived an interest in Canada and the States, which had never before possessed her. She questioned him with growing eagerness, and he replied with a smile and always that half-reverent, half-shy courtliness that had first attracted her. Undoubtedly he was a pleasant companion. He clothed the information for which she asked in careful and picturesque language. He was ready at any moment to render any service, however slight, but his attentions were so unobtrusive that Hilary could not but accept them with pleasure. She maintained her pretty graciousness throughout dinner, anxious to set him at his ease.
"Englishmen are not half so nice," she said to herself, as she rose from the table. And she thought of the stubborn Viscount Merrivale as she said it.
There was a friendly regret at her departure written in the man's eyes as he opened the door for her, and with a sudden girlish impulse she paused.
"Why don't you come and smoke your cigar in the punt?" she said.
He glanced irresolutely over his shoulder at the other two men who were discussing some political problem with much absorption.
With a curious desire to have her way with him, the girl waited with a little laugh.
"Come!" she said softly. "You can't be interested in British politics."
He looked at her with his friendly, silent smile, and followed her out.
* * * * *
"Isn't it heavenly?" breathed Hilary, as she lay back on the velvet cushions and watched the man's strong figure bend to the punt-pole.
"I think it is Heaven, Miss St. Orme," he answered in a hushed voice.
The sun had scarcely set in a cloudless shimmer of rose, and, sailing up from the east, a full moon cast a rippling, silvery pathway upon the mysterious water.
The girl drew a long sigh of satisfaction, then laughed a little.
"What a shame to make you work after dinner!" she said.
She saw his smile in the moonlight.
"Do you call this work?" She seemed to hear a faint ring of amusement in the slowly-uttered question.
"You are very strong," she said almost involuntarily.
"Yes," he agreed quietly, and there suddenly ran a curious thrill through her--a feeling that she and he had once been kindred spirits together in another world.
She felt as if their intimacy had advanced by strides when she spoke again, and the sensation was one of a strange, quivering delight which the perfection of the June night seemed to wholly justify. Anyhow, it was not a moment for probing her inner self with searching questions. She turned a little and suffered her fingers to trail through the moonlit water.
"I wonder if you would tell me something?" she said almost diffidently.
"If it lies in my power," he answered courteously.
"You may think it rude," she suggested, with a most unusual attack of timidity. It had been her habit all her life to command rather than to request. But somehow the very courtesy with which this man treated her made her uncertain of herself.
"I shall not think anything so--impossible," he assured her gently, and again she saw his smile.
"Well," she said, looking up at him intently, "will you--please--let me into your secret? I promise I won't tell. But do tell me who you are!"
There followed a silence, during which the man leaned a little on his pole, gazing downwards while he kept the punt motionless. The water babbled round them with a tinkling murmur that was like the laughter of fairy voices. They had passed beyond the region of house-boats and bungalows, and the night was very still.
At last the man spoke, and the girl gave a queer little motion of relief.
"I should like to tell you everything there is to know about me," he said in his careful, foreign English. "But--will you forgive me?--I do not feel myself able to do so--yet. Some day I will answer your question gladly--I hope some day soon--if you are kind enough to continue to extend to me your interest and your friendship."
He looked down into Hilary's uplifted face with a queer wistfulness that struck unexpectedly straight to her heart. She felt suddenly that this man's past contained something of loss and disappointment of which he could not lightly speak to a mere casual acquaintance.
With the quickness of impulse characteristic of her, she smiled sympathetic comprehension.
"And you won't even tell me your name?" she said.
He bent again to the pole, and she saw his teeth shine in the moonlight. "I think my friend told you one of my names," he said.
"Oh, it's much too commonplace," she protested. "Quite half the men I know are called Jack."
And then for the first time she heard him laugh--a low, exultant laugh that sent the blood in a sudden rush to her cheeks.
"Shall we go back now?" she suggested, turning her face away.
He obeyed her instantly, and the punt began to glide back through the ripples.
No further word passed between them till, as they neared the house-boat, the high, keen notes of a flute floated out upon the tender silence.
Hilary glanced up sharply, the moonlight on her face, and saw a group of men in a punt moored under the shadowy bank. One of them raised his hand and sent a ringing salutation across the water.
Hilary nodded and turned aside. There was annoyance on her face--the annoyance of one suddenly awakened from a dream of complete enjoyment.
Her companion asked no question. He was bending vigorously to his work. But she seemed to consider some explanation to be due to him.
"That," she said, "is a man I know slightly. His name is Cosmo Fletcher."
"A friend?" asked the big man.
Hilary coloured a little.
"Well," she said half-reluctantly, "I suppose one would call him that."
* * * * *
"I believe you're in love with Culver's half-breed American," said Cosmo Fletcher brutally, nearly three weeks later. He had just been rejected finally and emphatically by the girl who faced him in the stern of his skiff.
She was very pale, but her eyes were full of resolution as they met his.
"That," she said, "is no business of yours. Please take me back!"
He looked as if he would have liked to refuse, but her steadfast eyes compelled him. Sullenly he turned the boat.
Dead silence reigned between them till, as they rounded a bend in the river and came within sight of the house-boat, Fletcher, glancing over his shoulder, caught sight of a big figure seated on the deck.
Then he turned to the girl with a sneer:
"It might interest Jack Merrivale to hear of this pretty little romance of yours," he said.
The colour flamed in her cheeks.
"Tell him then!" she said defiantly.
"I think I must," said Fletcher. "He and I are such old friends."
He waited for her to tell him that it was on his account that they had quarrelled, but she would not so far gratify him, maintaining a stubborn silence till they drew alongside. Jacques rose to hand her on board.
"I hope you have enjoyed your row," he said courteously.
"Thanks!" she returned briefly, avoiding his eyes. "I think it is too hot to enjoy anything to-day."
The tea-kettle was singing merrily on the dainty brass spirit-lamp, and she sat down at the table forthwith.
Jacques stood beside her, silent and friendly as a tame mastiff. Perhaps his presence after what had just passed between herself and Fletcher made her nervous, or perhaps her thoughts were elsewhere and she forgot to be cautious. Whatever the cause, she took up the kettle carelessly and knocked it against the spirit-lamp with some force.
Jacques swooped forward and steadied it before it could overturn; but the dodging flame caught the girl's muslin sleeve and set it ablaze in an instant. She uttered a cry and started up with a wild idea of flinging herself into the river, but Jacques was too quick for her. He turned and seized the burning fabric in his great hands, ripping it away from her arm and crushing out the flames with unflinching strength.
"Don't be frightened!" he said. "It's all right. I've got it out."
"And what of you?" she gasped, eyes of horror on his blackened hands.
He smiled at her reassuringly.
"Well done, man!" cried Dick Culver. "It was like you to save her life while we were thinking about it. Are you hurt, Hilary?"
"No," she said, with trembling lips. "But--but--"
She broke off on the verge of tears, and Dick considerately transferred his attention to his friend.
"Let's see the damage, old fellow!"
"It is nothing," said Jacques, still faintly smiling. "Yes, you may see it if you like, if only to prove that I speak the truth."
He thrust out one hand and displayed a scorched and blistered palm.
"Call that nothing!" began Dick.
Fletcher suddenly pushed forward with an oath that startled them all.
"I should know that hand anywhere!" he exclaimed. "You infernal, lying impostor!"
There was an elaborate tattoo of the American flag on the extended wrist, to which he pointed with a furious laugh.
"Deny it if you can!" he said.
Jacques looked at him gravely, without the smallest sign of agitation.
"You certainly have good reason to know that hand rather well," he said after a moment, speaking with extreme deliberation, "considering that it has had the privilege of giving you the finest thrashing of your life."
Fletcher turned purple. He looked as if he were going to strike the speaker on the mouth. But before he could raise his hand Hilary suddenly forced herself between them.
"Mr. Fletcher," she said, her voice quivering with anger, "go instantly! There is your boat. And never come near us again!"
Fletcher fell back a step, but he was too furious to obey such a command.
"Do you think I am going to leave that confounded humbug to have it all his own way?" he snarled. "I tell you--"
But here Culver intervened.
"You shut up!" he ordered sternly. "We've had too much of you already. You had better go."
He took Fletcher imperatively by the arm, but Jacques intervened.
"Pray let the gentleman speak, Dick!" he said. "It will ease his feelings perhaps."
"No!" broke in Hilary breathlessly. "No, no! I won't listen! I tell you I won't!" facing the big man almost fiercely. "Tell me yourself if you like!"
He looked at her closely, still with that odd half-smile upon his face.
Then, before them all, he took her hand, and, bending, held it to his lips.
"Thank you, Hilary!" he said very softly.
In the privacy of her own cabin Hilary removed her tatters and cooled her tingling cheeks. She and her brother were engaged to dine at Dick's bungalow that night, but an overwhelming shyness possessed her, and at the last moment she persuaded Bertie to go alone. It was plain that for some reason Bertie was hugely amused, and she thought it rather heartless of him.
She dined alone on the house-boat with her face to the river. Her fright had made her somewhat nervous, and she was inclined to start at every sound. When the meal was over she went up to her favourite retreat on the upper deck. A golden twilight still lingered in the air, and the river was mysteriously calm. But the girl's heart was full of a heavy restlessness. Each time she heard a punt-pole striking on the bed of the river she raised her head to look.
He came at last--the man for whom her heart waited. He was punting rapidly down-stream, and she could not see his face. Yet she knew him, by the swing of his arms, the goodly strength of his muscles,--and by the suffocating beating of her heart. She saw that one hand was bandaged, and a passionate feeling that was almost rapture thrilled through and through her at the sight. Then he shot beyond her vision, and she heard the punt bump against the house-boat.
"It's a gentleman to see you, miss," said the Badger, thrusting a grey and grinning visage up the stairs.
"Ask him to come up!" said Hilary, steadying her voice with an effort.
A moment later she rose to receive the man she loved. And her heart suddenly ceased to beat.
"You!" she gasped, in a choked whisper.
He came straight forward. The last light of the day shone on his smooth brown face, with its steady eyes and strong mouth.
"Yes," he said, and still through his quiet tones she seemed to hear a faint echo of the subdued twang which dwellers in the Far West sometimes acquire. "I, John Merrivale, late of California, beg to render to you, Hilary St. Orme, in addition to my respectful homage, that freedom for which you have not deigned to ask."
She stared at him dumbly, one hand pressed against her breast. The ripple of the river ran softly through the silence. Slowly at last Merrivale turned to go.
And then sharply, uncertainly, she spoke.
"Wait, please!" she said.
She moved close to him and laid her hand on the flower-bedecked balustrade, trembling very much.
"Why have you done this?" Her quivering voice sounded like a prayer.
He hesitated, then answered her quietly through the gloom.
"I did it because I loved you."
"And what did you hope to gain by it?" breathed Hilary.
He did not answer, and she drew a little nearer as though his silence reassured her.
"Wouldn't it have saved a lot of trouble," she said, her voice very low but no longer uncertain, "if you had given me my freedom in the first place? Don't you think you ought to have done that?"
"I don't know," Merrivale said. "That fellow spoilt my game. So I offer it to you now--with apologies."
"I should have appreciated it--in the first place," said Hilary, and suddenly there was a ripple of laughter in her voice like an echo of the water below them. "But now I--I--have no use for it. It's too late. Do you know, Jack, I'm not sure he did spoil your game after all!"
He turned towards her swiftly, and she thrust out her hands to him with a quick sob that became a laugh as she felt his arms about her.
"You hairless monster!" she said. "What woman ever wanted freedom when she could have--Love?"
* * * * *
Two days later Viscount Merrivale's friends at the club read with interest and some amusement the announcement that his marriage to Miss Hilary St. Orme had been fixed to take place on the last day of the month.