Chapter XI
 

Nan was the first to free herself from the nightmare paralysis that bound her. Swiftly, as though in answer to a sudden inner urging, she moved forward. She almost pushed past Jerry in her haste. She was white, white to the lips with fear, but she never faltered till she stood between her husband and the boy she had chosen to protect her. The first glimpse of Piet had revealed to her in what mood he had come. In his right hand he was gripping her father's heaviest hunting-crop.

He came slowly forward, ignoring her. His eyes were upon Jerry, who glared back at him like a young panther. He did not appear to be aware of Nan.

Suddenly he spoke, briefly, grimly every word clean as a pistol-shot.

"I suppose you are old enough to know what you are doing?"

"What do you mean?" demanded Jerry, in fierce response. "What are you doing here? And how the devil did you get in? This place belongs to me!"

"I know." Piet's face was contemptuous. He seemed to speak through closed lips. "That is why I came. I wanted you."

"What do you want me for?" flashed back Jerry, with clenched hands. "If you have anything to say, you'd better say it downstairs."

"I have nothing whatever to say." There was a deep sound in Piet's voice that was something more than a menace. Abruptly he squared his great shoulders, and brought the weapon he carried into full view.

Jerry's eyes blazed at the action.

"You be damned!" he exclaimed loudly. "I'll fight you with pleasure, but not before--"

"You will do nothing of the sort!" thundered Piet, striding forward. "You will take a horse-whipping from me here and now, and in my wife's presence. You have behaved like a cur, and she shall see you treated as such."

The words were like the bellow of a goaded bull. Another instant, and he would have been at hand grips with the boy, but in that instant Nan sprang. With the strength of desperation, she threw herself against him, caught wildly at his arms, his shoulders, clinging at last with frenzied fingers to his breast.

"You shan't do it!" she gasped, struggling with him. "You shan't do it! If--if you must punish anyone, punish me! Piet, listen to me! Oh listen! I am to blame for this! You can't--you shan't--hurt him just because he has stood by me when--when I most wanted a friend. Do you hear me, Piet? You shan't do it! Beat me, if you like! I deserve it. He doesn't!"

"I will deal with you afterwards," he said, sweeping her hands from his coat at a single gesture.

But she caught at the hand that sought to brush her aside, caught and held it, clinging so fast to his arm that without actual violence he could not free himself.

He stood still, then, his eyes glowering ruddily over her head at Jerry, who stamped and swore behind her.

"Anne," he said, and the sternness of his voice was like a blow, "go into the next room!"

"I will not!" she gasped back. "I will not!"

Her face was raised to his. With her left hand she sought and grasped his right wrist. Her whole body quivered against him, but she stood her ground.

"I shall hurt you!" he said between his teeth.

"I don't care!" she cried back hysterically. "You--you can kill me, if you like!"

He turned his eyes suddenly upon her, flaming them straight into hers mercilessly, scorchingly. She felt as though an electric current had run through her, so straight, so piercing was his look. But she met it fully, with wide, unflinching eyes, while her fingers still clutched desperately at his iron wrists.

"Nan! Nan! For Heaven's sake go, and leave us to fight it out!" implored Jerry. "This can't be settled with you here. You are only making things worse for yourself. You don't suppose I'm afraid of him, do you?"

She did not so much as hear him. All her physical strength was leaving her; but still, panting and quivering, she met those fiery, searching eyes.

Suddenly she knew that her hold upon him was weaker than a child's. She made a convulsive effort to renew it, failed, and fell forward against him with a gasping cry.

"Piet!" she whispered, in nerveless entreaty. "Piet!"

He put his arm around her, supporting her; then as he felt her weight upon him he bent and gathered her bodily into his arms. She sank into them, more nearly fainting than she had ever been in her life; and, straightening himself, he turned rigidly, and bore her into the inner room.

He laid her upon the bed there, but still with shaking, powerless fingers she tried to cling to him.

"Don't leave me! Don't go!" she besought him.

He took her hands and put them from him. He turned to leave her, but even then she caught his sleeve.

"Piet, I--I want to--to tell you something," she managed to say.

He wheeled round and bent over her. There was something of violence in his action.

"Tell me nothing!" he ordered harshly. "Be silent! Anne, do you hear me? Do you hear me?"

Under the compulsion of his look and voice she submitted at last. Trembling she hid her face.

And in another moment she heard his step as he went out, heard him close the door and the sharp click of the key as he turned it in the lock.