Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
Nan was ever quick in all her ways, and it was very seldom that she was disconcerted. Between the moment of her reaching the top step and that in which she entered the hall, she flashed from laughing childhood to haughty womanhood. The dignity with which she offered her hand to her husband was in its way superb.
"An unexpected pleasure!" was her icy comment.
He took the hand, looking closely into her eyes. He made no attempt to draw her nearer, and Nan remained at arm's-length. Yet something in his scrutiny affected her, for a shiver went through her, proudly though she met it.
"It is cold," she said, by way of explanation. "It is freezing hard, and we came all the way by road."
"Yes," he said, in his deep, slow voice. "I saw you."
"You saw me?" Nan's eyebrows went up; she was furiously conscious that she blushed.
"I passed you in a motor," he explained.
"Oh!" She withdrew her hand, and turned to the fire with a little laugh, raging inwardly at the fate that had betrayed her.
Standing by the hearth, she pulled off her gloves, and spread her hands to the blaze. It was a mere pretence, for she was hot all over by that time, hot and quivering and fiercely resentful. There was another feeling also behind her resentment, a feeling which she would not own, that made her heart thump oddly, as it had thumped only once before in her life--when this man had touched her face with his lips.
"Well," she said, standing up after a few minutes, "I must go and dress, and so must you, dad. We are going to the Hunt Ball to-night," she added, with a brief glance in her husband's direction.
He made no reply of any sort. His eyes were fixed upon her left hand. After a moment she became aware of this, and slipped it carelessly into her pocket. Whistling softly, she turned to go.
At the foot of the stairs she heard her father's voice, and paused.
"You had better come, too," he was saying to his son-in-law.
Nan wheeled sharply, almost as if she would protest, but she checked her words unspoken.
Quietly Piet Cradock was making reply:
"Thank you, Colonel. I think I had better."
Across the hall Nan met his gaze still unwaveringly fixed upon her, and she returned it with the utmost defiance of which she was capable. Did he actually fancy that she could be coerced into joining him, she asked herself--she who had always been free as the air? Well, he would soon discover his mistake. She would begin to teach him from that moment.
With her head still held high, she turned and mounted the stairs.
Mona was waiting for her in much disturbance of spirit.
"He arrived early this afternoon," was her report. "We were all so astonished. He has come for you, Nan, and he says he must start back next week without fail. Isn't it short notice? I wish he had written to say he was coming. He sat and talked to dad all the afternoon. And then, as you didn't come, he started off in his motor to find you. He must have gone to the station first, or he would have met you sooner."
To all this Nan listened with a set face, while she raced through her dressing. She made no comment whatever. The only signs that she heard lay in her tense expression and unsteady fingers.
They did not descend till the last minute, just as the carriage containing the Colonel and three more of his daughters was driving away.
Piet was standing like a massive statue in the hall. As the two girls came down, he moved forward.
"I have kept the motor for you," he said.
Mona thanked him. Nan did not utter a word. She would not touch the hand that would have helped her in, and she kept her lips firmly closed throughout the drive.
When she entered the ballroom at length her husband was by her side, but neither by word nor look did she acknowledge his presence there.
Jerry spied her instantly, and came towards her. She went quickly to meet him.
"For goodness' sake," she whispered urgently, "help me to get away from that man!"
"Of course," said Jerry, promptly leading her away in the opposite direction till the crowd swallowed them. "Who the dickens is he?"
She looked at him with a small, piteous smile.
"His name is Piet Cradock," she said.
"Great Scotland!" ejaculated Jerry; and added fiercely: "What the devil has he come back for? What does he want?"
Nan threw back her head with a sudden wild laugh.
"Guess!" she cried.
But Jerry knew without guessing, and swore savagely under his breath.
"But you won't go with him--not yet, anyhow?" he urged. "He can't hurry you off without consulting your convenience. You won't submit to that?"
An imp of mischief had begun to dance in Nan's eyes.
"I am told he has to sail next week," she said. "But I think it possible that by that time he won't be quite so anxious to take me with him. Time alone will prove. How many waltzes did you ask for?"
"As many as I can get, of course," said Jerry, taking instant advantage of this generous invitation.
She laughed recklessly, and gave him her card.
"Take them then, my dear boy. I am ready to dance all night long."
She laughed again still more recklessly when he handed her card back to her.
"You are very daring!" she remarked.
He looked momentarily disconcerted.
"You don't mind, do you?"
"I mind? It's what I meant you to do," she answered lightly. "Shall I say you are very daring on my behalf?"
Jerry flushed a deep red.
"I would do anything under the sun for you, Nan," he said, in a low voice.
Whereat she laughed again--a gay, sweet laugh, and left him.