Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
Nan opened her eyes in her own sunny bedroom, and gazed wonderingly about her, dimly conscious of something wrong.
The doctor, whom she had known from her earliest infancy, was bending over her, and she smiled her recognition of him, though with a dawning uneasiness. Vague shapes were floating in her brain that troubled and perplexed her.
"What happened?" she murmured uneasily.
He laid his hand upon her forehead.
"Nothing much," he told her gently. "Lie still like a good girl and go to sleep. There is nothing whatever for you to worry about. You'll be better in the morning."
But the shapes were obstinate, and would not be expelled. They were, moreover, beginning to take definite form.
"Wasn't there an accident?" she said restlessly. "I wish you would tell me."
"Well, I will," the doctor answered, "if you will keep quiet and not vex yourself. There was a bit of an accident. The carriage was overturned. But no one was hurt but you, and you will soon be yourself again if you do as you're told."
"But how am I hurt?" questioned Nan, moving her head on the pillow with a dizzy feeling of weakness. "Ah!" with a sudden frown of pain. "It--it's my arm."
"Yes," the doctor said. "It's your arm. It went through the carriage window. I have had to strap it up pretty tightly. You will try to put up with it, and on no account must it be moved."
She looked at him with startled eyes.
"Is it very badly cut, then?"
"Yes, a fragment of glass pierced the main artery. But I have checked the bleeding--it was a providential thing that I was at hand to do it--and if you keep absolutely still, it won't burst out again. I am telling you this because it is necessary for you to know what a serious matter it is. Any exertion might bring it on again, and then I can't say what would happen. You have lost a good deal of blood as it is, and you can't afford to lose any more. But if you behave like a sensible girl, and lie quiet for a few days, you will soon be none the worse for the adventure."
"For a few days!" Nan's eyes widened. "Then--then I shan't be able to go with--with--" She faltered, and broke off.
He answered her with very kindly sympathy.
"Poor little woman! It's hard lines, but I am afraid there is no help for it. You will have to postpone your honeymoon for a little while."
"Have you--have you--told--him?" Nan whispered anxiously.
"Yes, he knows all about it," the doctor said. "You shall see him presently. But I want you to rest now. You have had a nasty shock, and I should like you to sleep it off. Just drink this, and shut your eyes."
Nan obeyed him meekly. She was feeling very weak and tired. And, after a little, she fell asleep, blissfully unconscious of the fact that her husband was seated close to her on the other side of the bed, silent and watchful, and immobile as a statue.
She did not wake till late on the following morning, and then it was to find her sister Mona only in attendance.
"Have you been up all night?" was Nan's first query.
"Well, not exactly. I lay down part of the time."
"Why in the world didn't you go to bed?" questioned Nan.
"I couldn't, dear. Piet was here."
"Who?" said Nan sharply; then, colouring vividly, "All night, Mona? How could you let him?"
"I couldn't help it!" said Mona. "He wouldn't go."
"What nonsense! He's gone now, I suppose?" Nan spoke irritably. The tightness of the doctor's bandages was causing her considerable pain.
"Oh, yes, he went some time ago," Mona assured her. "But he is sure to come back presently, and say good-bye."
"Say good-bye!" Nan echoed the words slowly, a dawning brightness in her eyes. "Is he--is he really going, then?" she whispered.
"He says he must go--whatever happens. It was a solemn promise, and he can't break it. I don't understand, of course, but he is wanted at Kimberley to avert some crisis connected with the mines."
"Then--he will have to start soon?" said Nan.
"Yes. But he won't leave till the last minute. He has chartered a special to take him to Plymouth."
"He knows I can't go?" said Nan quickly.
"Oh, yes; the doctor told him that last night."
"What did he say? Was he angry?"
"He looked furious. But he didn't say anything, even in Dutch. I think his feelings were beyond words," said Mona, with a little smile.
Nan asked no more, but when the doctor saw her a little later, he was dissatisfied with her appearance, and scolded her for working herself into a fever.
"There's no sense in fretting about it," he said. "The thing is done, and can't be altered. I have no doubt your husband will be back again in a few weeks to fetch you, and we will have you quite well again by then."
But Nan only shivered in response, as though she found this assurance the reverse of comforting. The shock of the accident, succeeding the incessant strain of the past few weeks, had completely broken down her nerve, and no amount of reasoning could calm her.
When a message came from her husband an hour later, asking if she would see him, she answered in the affirmative, but the bare prospect of the interview threw her into a ferment of agitation.
She lay panting on her pillows like a frightened child when at length he entered.
He came in very softly, but every pulse in her body leapt at his approach. She could not utter a word in greeting.
He stood a moment in silence, looking down at her, then, stooping, he took her free hand into his own.
"Are you better?" he asked, his deep voice hushed as if he were in church.
She could not answer him for the fast beating of her heart. He waited a little, then sat down by the bed, his great hand still holding her little trembling one in a steady grasp.
"The doctor tells me," he said, "that it would not be safe for you to travel at present, so I cannot of course, think of allowing you to do so."
Nan's eyes opened very wide at this. It was an entirely novel idea that this man should take upon himself to direct her movements. She drew a deep breath, and found her voice.
"I should certainly not dream of attempting such a thing without the doctor's permission."
His grave face did not alter. His eyes looked directly into hers and it seemed to Nan for the first time that they held something of a domineering expression.
She turned her head away with a quick frown. She also made a slight, ineffectual effort to free her hand. But he did not appear to notice either gesture.
"Yes," he said, in his slow way, "it is out of the question, and so I have asked your father to take care of you for me until my return--for, unfortunately, I cannot postpone my own departure."
Nan's lips quivered. She was beginning to feel hysterical. With an effort she controlled herself.
"How long shall you be away?" she asked.
"It is impossible for me to say. Everything depends upon the state of affairs at the mines. But you may be quite sure, Anne"--a deeper note crept into his voice--"that my absence will be as short as I can possibly make it."
She turned her head towards him again.
"You needn't hurry for my sake," she said abruptly. "I shall be perfectly happy here."
"I am glad to hear it," he answered gravely. "I have made full provision for you. The interest upon the settlement I have made upon you will be paid to you monthly. Should you find it insufficient, you will, of course, let me know. I could cable you some more if necessary."
A great blush rose in Nan's face at his words, spreading upwards to her hair.
"Oh," she stammered, "I--I--indeed, I shan't want any money! Please don't--"
"It is your own," he interposed quietly, "and as such I beg that you will regard it, and spend it exactly as you like. Should you require more, as I have said, I shall be pleased to send it to you."
He uttered the last sentence as if it ended the matter, and Nan found herself unable to say more. To have expressed any gratitude would have been an absolute impossibility at that moment.
She lay, therefore, in quivering silence until he spoke again.
"It is time for me to be going. I hope the injury to your arm will progress quite satisfactorily. You will not be able to write to me yourself at present, but your sister Mona has promised to let me hear of you by every mail. Dr. Barnard will also write."
He paused. But Nan said nothing whatever. She was wondering, with a fiery embarrassment, what form his farewell would take.
After a brief silence he rose.
"Good-bye, then!" he said.
He bent low over her, looking closely into her unwilling face. And then--it was the merest touch--for the fraction of a second his lips were on her forehead.
"Good-bye!" he said again, under his breath, and in another moment she heard his soft tread as he went away.
Her heart was throbbing madly; she felt as if it were leaping up and down within her. For a space she lay listening, every nerve upon the stretch. Then at last there came to her the sound of voices raised in farewell, the crunch of wheels below her window, the loud banging of a door. And with a gasp she turned her face into her pillow, and wept for sheer relief.
He had come and gone like an evil dream, and she was left safe in her father's house.