Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
Jerry's dinner was not, for some reason, quite the success he had anticipated.
Nan made no complaint of the cooking, but she ate next to nothing, to the grief of his hospitable soul. She was tired, of course, but there was something in her manner that he could not fathom. She was silent and unresponsive. There was almost an air of tragedy about her that made her so unfamiliar that he felt as if he were entertaining a stranger. He did not like the change. His old domineering, impetuous playfellow was infinitely easier to understand. He did not feel at ease with this quiet, white-faced woman, who treated him with such wholly unaccustomed courtesy.
"I say," he said, when the meal was ended, "let's go upstairs and have a smoke. I can clear away after you have gone to bed. Or do you want to go to bed now? It's nearly nine, so you may if you like."
She thanked him, and declined.
"I shouldn't sleep if I did," she said with a shiver. "No; I will help you wash up, and then we will go upstairs and have some music."
Jerry fell in eagerly with this idea. He loved his banjo. He demurred a little at accepting her assistance in the kitchen, but finally yielded, for she would not be refused. She seemed to dread the thought of solitude.
When they went upstairs at length, she made a great effort to shake off her depression. She even sang a little to one or two of Jerry's melodies, but her customary high spirits remained conspicuously absent, and after a while Jerry became impatient, and laid the instrument down.
"What's the matter?" he asked bluntly.
Nan was sitting with her feet on the fender, her eyes upon the flames. His question did not seem to surprise her.
"You wouldn't understand," she said, "if I were to tell you."
"Well, you might as well give me the chance," he responded. "My intelligence is up to the average, I dare say."
She looked round at him with a faint smile.
"Oh, don't be huffy, dear boy! Why should you? You want to know what is the matter? Well, I'll tell you. I'm afraid--I'm horribly afraid--that I've made a great mistake."
"You have?" said Jerry. "How? What do you mean?"
"I knew you would ask that," she said, with a little, helpless gesture of the shoulders. "And it is just that that I can't explain to you. You see, Jerry, I've only just begun to realize it myself."
Jerry was staring at her blankly.
"Do you mean, that you wish you hadn't come?" he said.
She nodded, rising suddenly from her chair.
"Oh, Jerry, don't be vexed, though you've a perfect right. I've made a ghastly, a perfectly hideous mistake. I--I can't think how I ever came to do it. But--but I wouldn't mind so frightfully if it weren't for you. That's what troubles me most--to have made a horrible mess of my life, and to have dragged you into it." Her voice shook, and she broke off for a moment, biting her lips. Then: "Oh, Jerry," she wailed, "I've done a dreadful thing--a dreadful thing! Don't you see it--what he will think of me--how he will despise me?"
The last words came muffled through her hands. Her head was bowed against the chimney-piece.
Jerry was nonplussed. He rose somewhat awkwardly, and drew near the bowed figure.
"But, my dear girl," he said, laying a slightly hesitating hand upon her shoulder, "what the devil does it matter what he thinks? Surely you don't--you can't care--care the toss of a half-penny?"
But here she amazed him still further.
"I do, Jerry, I do!" she whispered vehemently. "He's horrid--oh, he's horrid. But I can't help caring. I wanted him to think the very worst possible of me before I came. But now--but now--Then too, there's you," she ended irrelevantly. "What could they do to you, Jerry? Could they put you in prison?"
"Great Scott, no!" said Jerry. "You needn't cry over me. I always manage to fall on my feet. And, anyhow, it isn't a hanging matter. I say, cheer up, Nan, old girl! Don't you think you'd better go to bed? No? Well, let me play you something cheerful, then. I've never seen you in the dumps before. And I don't like it. I quite thought this would be one of our red-letter days. Look up, I say! I believe you're crying."
Nan was not crying, but such was the concern in his voice that she raised her head and smiled to reassure him.
"You're very, very good to me, Jerry," she said earnestly. "And oh, I do hope I haven't got you into trouble!"
"Don't you worry your head about me," said Jerry cheerfully. "You're tired out, you know. You really ought to go to bed. Let's have something rousing, with a chorus, and then we'll say good-night."
He took up his banjo again, and dashed without preliminary into the gay strains of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
He sang with a gaiety that even Nan did not imagine to be feigned, and, lest lack of response should again damp his spirits, she forced herself to join in the refrain. Faster and faster went Jerry's fingers, faster and faster ran the song, his voice and Nan's mingling, till at last he broke off with a shout of laughter, and sprang to his feet.
"There! That's the end of our soiree, and I'm not going to keep you up a minute longer. I wonder if we're snowed up yet. We'll have some fun to-morrow, if we are. I say, look at the time! Good-night! Good-night!"
He advanced towards her. She was standing facing him, with her back to the fire. But something--something in her eyes--arrested him, sending his own glancing backwards over his shoulder. She was looking, not at him, but beyond him.
The next instant, with a sharp oath, Jerry had wheeled in his tracks. He, too, stood facing the door, staring wide-eyed, dumbfounded.
There, at the head of the stairs, quite motionless, quite silent, facing them both, stood Piet Cradock.