Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
In silence he lifted her and laid her again upon the bed. His touch was perfectly gentle, but there was no kindness in it, no warmth of any sort. And Nan turned her face into the pillow and sobbed convulsively. How could she tell him now?
He began to walk up and down the tiny room, still maintaining that ominous silence. But she sobbed on, utterly unstrung, utterly hopeless, utterly spent.
He paused at last, and poured some water into a glass.
"Drink this," he said, stopping beside her. "And then lie quiet until I speak to you."
But she could neither raise herself nor take the glass. He stooped and lifted her, holding the water to her trembling lips. She leaned against him with closed eyes while she drank. She was painfully anxious to avoid his look. And yet when he laid her down, the sobbing began again, though she struggled feebly to repress it.
He fetched a chair at last and sat down beside her, gravely waiting till her breathing became less distressed. Then, finding her calmer, he finally spoke:
"You need not be afraid of me, Anne. I shall not hurt you."
"I am not afraid," she whispered back.
He sat silent for a space, not looking at her. At last:
"Can you attend to me now?" he asked her formally.
She raised herself slowly.
"May I say something first?" she said.
He turned his brooding eyes upon her.
"If you can say it quietly," he said.
She pressed her hand to her throat.
"You--will listen to me, and--and believe me?"
"I shall know if you lie to me," he said.
She made a sharp gesture of protest.
"I don't deserve that," she said. "You know it."
His grim lips relaxed a very little.
"I shouldn't talk about deserts if I were you," he said.
His tone scared her again, but she made a valiant effort to compose herself.
"You say that," she said, "because you are very angry with me. I don't dispute your right to be angry. I know I've made a fool of you. But--but after all"--her voice began to shake uncontrollably; she forced out the words with difficulty--"I've made a much bigger fool of myself. I think you might consider that."
He did consider it with drawn brows.
"Does that improve your case?" he asked at length.
She did not answer him. She was trying hard to read his face, but it told her nothing. With a swift movement she slipped to her feet and stood before him.
"I don't know," she said, speaking fast and passionately, "what you have in your mind. I don't know what you think of me. But I suppose you mean to punish me in some way, to--to give me a lesson that will hurt me all my life. You have me at your mercy, and--and I shall have to bear it, whatever it is. But before--before you make me hate you, let me say this: I am your wife. Hadn't you better remember that before you punish me? I--I shan't hate you so badly so long as I know that you remember that."
She stopped. She was wringing her hands fast together to subdue her agitation.
Piet had risen with her, but she could no longer search his face. She had said that she did not fear him, but in that moment she was more horribly afraid than she had ever been in her life.
She thought that he would never break his silence. Had she angered him even further by those words of hers, she wondered desperately? And if so--oh! if so--Suddenly he spoke, and every pulse in her body leaped and quivered.
"Since when," he said, "have you begun to remember that?"
"I have never forgotten it," she said, in a voiceless whisper.
He took her hands, separated them, held up the left before her eyes.
"Never?" he said. "Be careful what you say to me."
She looked up with a flash of the old quick pride.
"I have spoken the truth," she said. "Why should I be careful?"
He dropped her hand.
"What have you done with your wedding-ring?"
"I--lost it." Nan's voice and eyes sank together. "It was an accident," she said. "We dropped it in the lake."
"We?" said Piet.
She made a little hopeless gesture.
"Yes, Jerry and I. It's no good telling you how it happened. You won't believe me if I do."
He made no comment. Only after a moment he put his hand on her shoulder.
"Have you anything else to say?" he asked.
She shook her head without speaking. She was shivering all over.
"Very well, then," he said. "Come into the other room--you seem cold."
She went with him submissively. The fire had sunk low, and he replenished it. The hunting crop that he had brought from her father's house lay on the table with Jerry's banjo. He picked it up and put it away in a corner.
"Sit down," he said.
She sank upon the sofa, hiding her face. He took up his stand on the rug, facing her.
"Now," he said quietly, "do you remember my telling you that you had married a savage? I see you do. And you are afraid of me in consequence. I am a savage. I admit it. I hurt you that night. I meant to hurt you. I meant you to see that I was in earnest. I meant you to realize that you were my wife. I meant--I still mean--to master you. But I did not mean to terrify you as you were terrified, as you are terrified now. I made a mistake, and for that mistake I desire to apologize."
He stooped and drew one of her hands away from her face.
"You defied me," he said. "Do you remember? And I am not accustomed to defiance. Nor will I bear it from anyone--my wife least of all. I am not threatening you; I am simply showing you what you must learn to expect from me, from the savage you have married. It is not my intention to frighten you. I am no longer angry with either you or the young fool whom you call your friend. By the way, I have not done him any violence. He has merely gone to find a lodging for himself and for the motor in the village. Yes, I turned him out of his own house, but I might have done worse. I meant to do much worse."
"Yes?" murmured Nan. "Why--why didn't you?"
"Because," he answered grimly, "I found that I had only fools to deal with."
He paused a moment.
"Well, now for your punishment," he said. "As you remarked just now, I have you absolutely at my mercy. How much mercy do you expect--or deserve? Answer me--as my wife."
But she could not answer him. She only bowed her head speechlessly against the strong hand that still held hers.
She could feel his fingers tightening to a grip. And she knew herself beaten, powerless.
"Listen to me, Anne!" he said suddenly; and in his voice was something that she had only heard once before, and that but vaguely. "I am going to give you a fair chance, in spite of your behaviour to me. I am willing to believe--I do believe--that, to a certain extent, I drove you to this course. I also believe that you and your friend Jerry are nothing but a pair of irresponsible children. I should like to have caned him, but I had nothing but a loaded horse-whip to do it with, so I was obliged to let him off. Now listen! I am going downstairs and I shall stay there for exactly half an hour. If between now and the end of that half-hour you come to me with any good and sufficient reason for letting you go back and live apart from me in your father's house, I will let you go. You have asked me to remember that you are my wife. Precisely what you meant by that you have left me to guess. You will make that request of yours quite plain to me within the next half-hour."
He relinquished his hold with the words, and would have withdrawn his hand, but she made a sharp movement to stay him.
"Do you--really--mean that?" she asked him, a catch in her voice, her head still bent.
"I have said it," he said.
But still with nervous fingers she sought to detain him.
"What--what would you consider a good and sufficient reason?"
The hand she held clenched slowly upon itself.
"If you can convince me," he said, his voice very deep and steady, "that to desert me would be for your happiness, I will let you go for that."
"But how can I convince you?" she said, her face still hidden from him, her hands closed tightly upon his wrist.
"You will be able to do so," he said, "if you know your own mind."
"And if--if I fail to satisfy you?" she faltered.
He was silent. After a moment he deliberately freed himself, and turned away.
"Those are my terms," he said. "If you do not come to me in half an hour I shall conclude that you leave the decision in my hands--in short, that you wish to remain my wife. Think well, Anne, before you take action in this matter. I do not seek to persuade you to either course. Only let me warn you that, whatever your choice, I shall treat it as final. You must realize that fully before you choose."
He was at the head of the stairs as he ended. Without a pause he began to descend, and she counted his footsteps with a wildly beating heart till they ceased in the room below.