Chapter XIV
 

She was alone. In a silence intense she lifted her head at last, and knew that for half an hour she was safe from interruption.

Far away over the snow she heard a distant church clock tolling midnight. It ceased, and in the silence she thought she heard her stretched nerves cracking one by one. Soon--very soon--she would have to go down to him and fight the final battle for her freedom. But she would wait till the very last minute. She would spend the whole of the brief time accorded to her in mustering all her strength. He had swept her pride utterly out of her reach. But surely that was not her only weapon.

What of her hatred--that hatred that had driven her to this mad flight with Jerry? Surely out of that she could fashion a shield that all his savagery could not pierce. Moreover, he had given her his word to abide by her decision whatever it might be, so long as she could convince him of that same hatred that had once blazed so fiercely within her.

But what had happened to it, she wondered? It had wholly ceased to nerve her for resistance. How was it? Was she too physically exhausted to fan it into flame, or had he torn this also from her to wither underfoot with her dead pride? Surely not! With all his boasts of mastery, he had not mastered her yet. She would never submit to him--never, never! Crush her, trample her as he would, she would never yield herself voluntarily to him. It was only when he began to spare her that she found herself wavering. Why had he spared her? she asked herself. Why had he given her that single chance of escape?

Or, stay! Had he, after all, been generous? Had he but affected generosity that he might the more completely subjugate her? He had said that she must convince him that freedom from her chain would mean happiness to her. And how could she ever convince him of this? How? How? Would he ever see himself as she saw him--a monster of violence whose very presence appalled her? The problem was hopeless, hopeless! She knew that she could never make him understand.

Swiftly the time passed, and with every minute her resolution grew weaker, her agitation more uncontrollable. She could not do it. She could not face him with another challenge. It would kill her to resist him again as she had resisted him on Jerry's behalf. And yet she must do something. For, if she did not go to him, he would come to her. The half-hour he had given her was nearly spent. If she did not make up her mind soon it would be too late. It might be that already he was repenting his brief generosity, if generosity it had been. It might be that at any moment she would hear his tread upon the stairs.

She started up in a panic, fancying that she heard it already. But no sound followed her wild alarm, and she knew that her quivering nerves had tricked her. Shuddering from head to foot, she stood listening, debating with herself.

Her time was very short now; only three minutes to the half-hour--only two--only one!

With a gasp, she gathered together all the little strength she had left. But she could not descend those gloomy stairs. She dared not go to him. She stood halting at the top.

Ah, now he was moving! She heard his step in the room below, and she was conscious of an instant's wild relief that the suspense was past.

Then panic rushed back upon her, blotting out all else. She saw his shadow on the stairs, and she cried to him to stop.

"I am coming down to you! Wait for me! Wait!"

He stepped back, and she stumbled downwards, nearly falling in her haste. At the last stair she tripped, recovering herself only by the arm he flung out to catch her.

"I was coming!" she gasped incoherently. "I would have come before, but the stairs were dark--so dark, and I was frightened!"

"There is nothing to frighten you," he said gravely.

"I can't help it!" she wailed like a child. "Oh, Piet--Piet, be kind to me--just this once--if you can! I--I'm terrified!"

He put his arm round her.

"Why?" he said.

She could not tell him. But in a vague fashion his arm comforted her; and that also was beyond explanation.

"You are not angry?" she whispered.

"No," he said.

"You will be," she said, shivering, "when I have told you my decision."

"What is your decision?" he asked.

She did not answer him; she could not.

He moved, and very gently set her free. There was a chair by the table from which he had evidently just risen. He turned to it and sat down, watching her under his hand.

"What is your decision?" he asked again.

She shook her head. Her agony of fear was passing, but still she could not tell him yet.

He waited silently, his face so shaded by his hand that she could not read its expression.

"Why don't you answer me?" he said at last.

"I--can't!" she said, with a sob.

"You leave the decision to me?" he questioned.

She did not answer.

He straightened himself slowly, without rising.

"My decision is made," he said. "Give me your hand; not that one--the left."

She obeyed him trembling. He had taken something from his pocket. With a start she saw what it was.

"Oh, no, Piet--no!" she cried.

But he had his way, for he would not suffer her resistance to thwart him. Very gravely and resolutely he slipped a gold ring on to her finger.

"And you will give me your word to keep it there," he said, looking up at her.

Her lips were quivering; she could not speak.

"Never mind," he said; "I can trust you."

He released her hand with the words, and there followed a brief silence while Nan stood struggling vainly for self-control.

Failing at length, she sank suddenly down upon her knees at the table hiding her face and crying as if her heart would break.

"My dear Anne!" he said. And then in a different tone, his hand upon her bowed head: "What is it child? Don't cry, don't cry! Is it so hard for you to be my wife?"

She could not answer him. His kindness was so strange to her. She could only sob under that gentle, comforting hand.

"Hush!" he said. "Hush! Don't be so distressed. Anne, listen! I will never be a savage to you again. I swear it on my honour, on my faith in you, and on the love I have for you. What more can I do?"

Still she could not answer him, but her tears were ceasing. Yielding to the pressure of his hand, she had drawn nearer to him. But she did not raise her head.

After a long, quivering silence she spoke.

"Piet, I--I want you to--forgive me; not just for this, but for--a thousand things. Piet, I--I didn't know you really loved me."

"I have always loved you, Anne," he said, in his deep, slow voice.

"And you--forgive me," she said faintly.

"I have forgiven you," he answered gravely.

She made a slight, shy movement, and he took his hand from her head. But in an instant impulsively she caught at it, drawing it down against her burning face.

"And you are not angry with me any more?" she murmured.

"No," he said again.

She was silent for a space, not moving, still tightly holding his hand.

He could not see her face, nor did he seek to do so. Perhaps he feared to scare away her new-found courage.

At length, in a very small voice, she broke the silence.

"Piet!"

He leaned forward.

"What is it, Anne?"

He could feel her breath quick and short upon his hand. She seemed to be making a supreme effort.

"Piet!" she said again.

"I am listening," he responded, with absolute patience.

She turned one cheek slightly towards him.

"If I loved anybody," she said, rather incoherently, "I--I'd find some way of letting them know it."

He leaned his head once more upon his hand.

"I am a rough beast, Anne," he said sadly. "My love-making only hurts you."

Nan was silent again for a little, but she still held fast to his hand.

"Were you," she asked hesitatingly at length, "were you--making love to me--that night?"

"After my own savage fashion," he said.

"Well," she said, a slight quiver in her voice, "it didn't hurt me, Piet."

Piet was silent.

"I mean," she said, gathering courage, "if--if I had known that it meant just that, I--well, I shouldn't have minded so much."

Still Piet was silent. His hand shaded his eyes, but she knew that he was watching her.

"Do you understand?" she asked him doubtfully.

"No," he said.

"Don't you--don't you know what I want you to do?" she said, rather Breathlessly.

"No," he said again.

"Must I--tell you?" she asked, with a gasp.

"I think you must," he said, in his grave way.

She lifted her head abruptly. Her eyes were very big and shining. She stretched her hands out to him with a little, quivering laugh.

"I hate you for making me say it!" she declared, with a vehemence half passionate, half whimsical. "Piet, I--I want you--to--to--take me in your arms again, and--and--kiss me--as you did--that night."

The last words were uttered from his breast, though she never knew how she came to be there. It was as though a whirlwind had caught her away from the earth into a sunlit paradise that was all her own--a paradise in which fear had no place. And the chain against which she had chafed so long and bitterly had turned to links of purest gold.