Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
Three weeks after her wedding, Nan Cradock awoke to the amazing discovery that she was a rich woman; how rich it took her some time to realise, and when it did dawn upon her she was startled, almost dismayed.
Her recovery from the only illness she had ever known was marvellously rapid, and with her return to health her spirits rose to their accustomed giddy height. There was little in her surroundings to remind her of the fact that she was married, always excepting the unwonted presence of these same riches which she speedily began to scatter with a lavish hand. Her life slipped very easily back into its accustomed groove, save that the pinch of poverty was conspicuously absent. The first day of every month brought her a full purse, and for a long time the charm of this novelty went far towards quieting the undeniable sense of uneasiness that accompanied it.
It was only when the novelty began to wear away that the burdened feeling began to oppress her unduly. No one suspected it, not even Mona, who adhered rigorously to her promise, and wrote her weekly report of her sister's health to her absent brother-in-law long after Nan was fully capable of performing this duty for herself. Mona had always been considered the least feather-brained of the family, and she certainly fulfilled her trust with absolute integrity.
Piet Cradock's epistles were not quite so frequent, and invariably of the briefest. They were exceedingly formal at all times, and Nan's heart never warmed at the sight of his handwriting. It was thick and strong, like himself, and she always regarded it with a little secret sense of aversion.
Nevertheless, as time passed, and he made no mention of return, her dread of the future subsided gradually into the back of her mind. It had never been her habit to look forward very far, and she was still little more than a child. Gradually the fact of her marriage began to grow shadowy and unreal, till at length she almost managed to shut it out of her consideration altogether. She had accepted the man upon impulse, dazzled by the glitter of his wealth. To find that he had drifted out of her life, and that the wealth remained, was the most blissful state of affairs that she could have desired.
Slowly spring merged into summer, and more and more did it seem to Nan that the past was nothing but a dream. She returned to her customary pursuits with all her old zest, rising early in the mornings to follow the otter-hounds, tramping for miles, and returning ravenous to breakfast; or, again, spending hours in the saddle, and only returning at her own sweet will. Colonel Everard's household was one of absolute freedom. No one ever questioned the doings of anyone else. From the earliest they had one and all been accustomed to go their own way. And Nan was the freest and most independent of them all.
It was on a splendid morning in July that as she splashed along the marshy edge of a stream in hot pursuit of one of the biggest otters she had ever seen, a well-known voice accosted her by name.
"Hullo, Nan! I wondered if you would turn up when they told me you were still at home."
Nan whisked round, up to her ankles in mud.
"Hullo, Jerry, it's you, is it?" was her unceremonious reply. "Pleased to see you, my boy. But don't talk to me now. I can't think of anything but business."
She was off with the words, not waiting to shake hands. But Jerry Lister was not in the least discouraged by this treatment. He was accustomed to Nan and all her ways.
He pounded after her along the bank and joined her as a matter of course. A straight, good-looking youth was Jerry, as wild and headstrong as Nan herself. He was the grand-nephew of old Squire Grimshaw, Colonel Everard's special crony, and he and Nan had been chums from their childhood. He was only a year older than she, and in many respects he was her junior. "I say, you are all right again?" was his first question, when the otter allowed them a little breathing-space. "I was awfully sorry to hear about your accident, you know, but awfully glad, too, in a way. By Jove, I don't think I could have spent the Long here, with you in South Africa! What ever possessed you to go and marry a Boer, Nan?"
"Don't be an idiot!" said Nan sharply. "He isn't anything of the sort."
Jerry accepted the correction with a boyish grimace.
"I'm coming to call on you to-morrow, Mrs. Cradock," he announced.
Nan coloured angrily.
"You needn't trouble yourself," she returned. "I don't receive callers."
But Jerry was not to be shaken off. He linked an affectionate arm in hers.
"All right, Nan old girl, don't be waxy," he pleaded. "Come on the lake with me this afternoon instead. I'll bring some prog if you will, and we'll have one of our old red-letter days. Is it a promise?"
She hesitated, still half inclined to be ungracious.
"Well," she said at length, moved in spite of herself by his persuasive attitude, "I will come to please you, on one condition."
"Good!" ejaculated Jerry. "It's done, whatever it is."
"Don't be absurd!" she protested, trying to be stern and failing somewhat ignominiously. "I will come only if you will promise not to talk about anything that you see I don't like."
"Bless your heart," said Jerry, lifting her fingertips to his lips, "I won't utter a syllable, good or bad, without your express permission. You'll come, then?"
"Yes, I'll come," she said, allowing the smile that would not be suppressed. "But if you don't make it very nice, I shall never come again."
"All right," said Jerry cheerily. "I'll bring my banjo. You always like that. Come early, like a saint. I'll be at the boat-house at eleven."
He was; and Nan was not long after. The lake stretched for about a mile in the squire's park, and many were the happy hours that they had spent upon it.
It was a day of perfect summer, and they drifted through it in sublime enjoyment. Jerry soon discovered that the girl's marriage and anything remotely connected with it were subjects to be avoided, and as he had no great wish himself to investigate in that direction he found small difficulty in confining himself to more familiar ground. Without effort they resumed the old friendly intercourse that the girl's rash step had threatened to cut short, and long before the end of the afternoon they were as intimate as they had ever been.
"You mustn't go in yet," insisted Jerry, when a distant clock struck seven. "Wait another couple of hours. There's plenty of food left. And the moonrise will be grand to-night."
Nan did not need much persuading. She had always loved the lake, and Jerry's society was generally congenial. He had, moreover, been taking special pains to please her, and she was quite willing to be pleased.
She consented, therefore, and Jerry punted her across to her favourite nook for supper. She thoroughly enjoyed the repast, Jerry's ideas of what a picnic-basket should contain being of a decidedly lavish order.
The meal over, he took up his banjo and waxed sentimental. Nan lay among her cushions and listened in sympathetic silence. Undeniably Jerry knew how to make music, and he also knew when to stop--a priceless gift in Nan's estimation.
When the moon rose at last out of the summer haze, he had laid his instrument aside and was lying with his head on his arms and his face to the rising glory. They watched it dumbly in the silence of goodfellowship, till at last it topped the willows and shone in a broad, silver streak across the lake right up to the prow of the boat.
After a long time Jerry turned his dark head.
"I say, Nan!" he said, almost in a whisper.
"Yes?" she murmured back, her eyes still full of the splendour. The boy raised himself a little.
"Do you remember that day ever so long ago when we played at being sweethearts on this very identical spot?" he asked her softly.
She turned her eyes to his with a doubtful, questioning look.
"We weren't in earnest, Jerry," she reminded him.
He jerked one shoulder with a sharp, impatient gesture, highly characteristic of him.
"I know we weren't. I shan't dream of being in earnest in that way for another ten--perhaps twenty--years. But there's no harm in making believe, is there, just now and then? I liked that game awfully, and so did you. You know you did."
Nan did not attempt to deny it. She sat up instead with her hands clasped round her knees and laughed like an elf.
Her wedding-ring caught the moonlight, and the boy leaned forward with a frown.
"Take that thing off, won't you, just for to-night? I hate to think you're married. You're not, you know. We're in fairyland, and married people never go there. The fairies will turn you out if they see it."
Very gently he inserted one finger between her clasped ones and began to draw the emblem off.
Nan made no resistance whatever. She only sat and laughed. She was in her gayest, most inconsequent mood. Some magic of the moonlight was in her veins that night.
"There!" said Jerry triumphantly. "Now you are safe. Jove! Did you hear that water-sprite gurgling under the boat? It must be ripping to be a water-sprite. Can't you see them, Nan, whisking about down there in couples along the stones? Give me your hand, and we'll dive under and join them."
But Nan's enthusiasm would not stretch to this. She fully understood his mood, but she would only sit in the moonlight and laugh, till presently Jerry, infected by her merriment, began to laugh too, and spun the ring he had filched from her high into the moonlight.
How it happened neither of them could ever afterwards say; but just at that critical moment when the ring was glittering in mid-air, some wayward current, or it might have been the water-sprite Jerry had just detected, lapped the water smartly against the punt and bumped it against the bank. Jerry exclaimed and nearly overbalanced backwards; Nan made a hasty grab at her falling property, but her hand only collided with his, making a similar grab at the same moment, and between them they sent the ring spinning far out into the moonlit ripples.
It disappeared before their dazzled eyes into that magic bar of light, and the girl and the boy turned and gazed at one another in speechless consternation.
Nan was the first to recover. She drew a deep breath, and burst into a merry peal of laughter.
"My dear boy, for pity's sake don't look like that! I never saw anything so absolutely tragic in my life. Why, what does it matter? I can buy another. I can buy fifty if I want them."
Thus reassured, Jerry began to laugh too, but not with Nan's abandonment. The incident had had a sobering effect upon him.
"But I'm awfully sorry," he protested. "All my fault. You must let me make it good."
This suggestion added to Nan's mirth. "Oh, I couldn't really. I should feel as if I was married to you, and I shouldn't like that at all. Now you needn't look cross, for you know you wouldn't either. No, don't be silly, Jerry. It doesn't matter the least little bit in the world."
"But, I say, won't the absent one be savage?" suggested Jerry.
Nan tossed her head. "I'm sure I don't know. Anyhow it doesn't matter."
"Do you really mean that?" he persisted. "Don't you really care?"
Nan threw herself back in the boat with her face to the stars.
"Why, of course not," she declared, with regal indifference. "How can you be so absurd?"
And in face of such sublime recklessness, he was obliged to be convinced.