Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
Piet Cradock spent nearly the whole of that long evening leaning against a doorpost watching his wife dancing with Jerry Lister. They were the best-matched couple in the room, and, as a good many remarked, they seemed to know it.
Through every dance Nan laughed and talked with a feverish gaiety, conscious of that long, long gaze that never varied. She felt almost hysterical under it at last. It made her desperate--so desperate that she finally quitted the ballroom altogether in Jerry's company, and remained invisible till people were beginning to take their departure.
That feeling at the back of her mind had grown to a definite sensation that she could not longer ignore or trample into insignificance. She was horribly afraid of that silent man with his gloomy, inscrutable eyes. His look frightened, almost terrified her. She felt like a trapped creature that lies quaking in the grass, listening to the coming footsteps of its captor.
In a vague way Jerry was aware of her inquietude, and when they rose at length to leave their secluded corner, he turned and spoke with a certain blunt chivalry that did him credit.
"I say, Nan, if things get unbearable, you'll promise to let me know? I'll do anything to help you, you know--anything under the sun."
And Nan squeezed his arm tightly in acknowledgment, though she made no verbal answer.
Amid a crowd of departing dancers they came face to face with Piet. He was standing in an attitude of immense patience near the door. Very quietly he addressed her.
"Colonel Everard and your sisters have gone. The motor is waiting to take you when you are ready."
She started back sharply. Her nerves were on edge, and the news was a shock. Her hand was still on Jerry's arm. Impulsively she turned to him.
"I haven't had nearly enough yet," she declared. "Come along, Jerry! Let's dance to the bitter end!"
Jerry took her at her word on the instant, and began to thread the way back to the ballroom. But before they reached it a quiet hand fastened upon his shoulder, detaining him.
"Pardon me," said Piet Cradock, "but my wife has had more than enough already, and I am going to take her home!"
Jerry stopped, struck silent for the moment by sheer astonishment.
Without further words Piet proceeded to transfer Nan's hand from the boy's arm to his own. He did it with absolute gentleness, but with a resolution that admitted of no resistance--at least Nan attempted none.
But the action infuriated Jerry, and in the flurry of the moment he completely lost his head.
"What the devil do you mean?" he demanded loudly.
An abrupt silence fell upon the buzzing throng about them. Through it, with unfaltering composure, fell Piet Cradock's reply.
"I mean exactly what I have said. If you have any objection to raise, I am ready to deal with it, either now or later--as you shall choose."
The words were hardly uttered when Nan did an extraordinary thing. She lifted a perfectly colourless face with a ghastly smile upon it, and held out her free hand to Jerry.
"All right, Jerry," she said. "I think I'll go after all. I am rather tired. Good-night, dear boy! Pleasant dreams! Now, Piet"--she turned that quivering smile upon her husband, and it was the bravest thing she had ever done--"don't keep me waiting. Go and get your coat, and be quick about it; or I shall certainly be ready first."
He turned away at once, and the incident was over, since by this unexpected move Nan had managed to convey to her too ardent champion that she desired it to be so.
He departed sullenly to the refreshment-room, mystified but obedient and she dived hurriedly into the cloakroom in search of her property.
She found Piet waiting for her when she came out, and she passed forth with him to the waiting motor with a laugh and a jest for the benefit of the onlookers.
But the moment the door closed upon them she fell into silence, drawn back from him as far as possible, her cold hands clenched tight under her cloak.
He did not attempt to speak to her during the quarter of an hour's drive, sitting mutely beside her in statuesque stillness; and it was she who, when he handed her out, broke the silence.
"I have something to say to you."
He bent before her stiffly.
"I am at your service."
There was something in his words that sounded ironical to her, something that sent the blood to her face in a burning wave. She turned in silence and ascended the steps in front of him.
She found the door unlocked, but the hall was empty, and lighted only by the great flames that spouted up from the log-fire on the open hearth.
Clearly the rest of the family had retired, and a sudden, sharp suspicion flashed through Nan that her husband had deliberately laid his plans for this private interview with her.
It set her heart pounding again within her, but she braced herself to treat him with a high hand. He must not, he should not, assume the mastery over her.
Silently she waited as he shut and bolted the great door, and then quietly crossed the shadowy hall to join her.
She had dropped her cloak from her shoulders, and the firelight played ruddily over her dress of shimmering white, revealing her slim young beauty in every delicate detail. Very pale, but erect and at least outwardly calm, she faced him.
"What I have to say to you," she said, "will make you very angry; but I hope you will have the patience to listen to me, because it must be said."
He did not answer. He merely stooped and stirred the fire to a higher blaze, then turned and looked at her with those ever-watching eyes of his.
Nan's hands were clenched unconsciously. She was making the greatest effort of her life.
"It has come to this," she said, forcing herself with all her quivering strength to speak quietly. "I do not wish to be your wife. I have realized for some time that my marriage was a mistake, and I thought it possible, I hoped with all my heart, that you would see it, too. I suppose, by your coming back in this way, that you have not yet done so?"
He was standing very quietly before her with his hands behind him. Notwithstanding her wild misgiving, she could not see that he was in any way angered by her words. He seemed to observe her with a grave interest. That was all.
A tremor of passion went through her. His passivity was not to be borne. In some curious fashion it hurt her. She felt as though she were beating and bruising herself against bars of iron.
"Surely," she said, and her voice shook in spite of her utmost effort to control it--"surely you must see that you are asking of me more than I can possibly give. I own that I am--nominally--your wife, but I realize now that I can never be anything more to you than that. I cannot go away with you. I can never make my home with you. I married you upon impulse. I did you a great wrong, but you will admit that you hurried me into it. And now that--that my eyes are open, I find that I cannot go on. Would it--would it--" She was faltering under that unchanging gaze, but she compelled herself to utter the question--"be quite impossible to--to get a separation?"
"Quite," said Piet.
He did not raise his voice, but she shrank at the brief word, shrank uncontrollably as if he had struck her.
He went on quite steadily, but his eyes gave her no rest. They seemed to her to gleam red in the glancing firelight.
"I do not admit that our marriage was a mistake. I was always aware that you married me for my money. But on the other hand I was willing to pay your price. I wanted you. And--I want you still. Nothing will alter that fact. I am sorry if you think you have made a bad bargain, for you will have to abide by it. Perhaps some day you will change your mind again. But it is not my habit to change mine. That is, I think, all that need be said upon the subject."
There was not the faintest hint of vehemence in his tone, but there was unmistakable authority. Having spoken, he stood grimly waiting for her next move.
As for Nan, a sudden fury entered into her that possessed her more completely than any fear. To be thus mastered in a few curt sentences was more than her wild spirit would endure. Without an instant's hesitation she flung down the gauntlet.
"It is true," she said, speaking quickly, "that I married you for your money, but since you knew that, you were as much to blame as I. Had I known then what sort of man you were, I would sooner have gone into the workhouse. I am quite aware that it is thanks to you that my father is not a ruined man, but I--I protest against being made the price for your benefits. I will never touch another penny of your money myself, and neither shall any of my family if I can prevent it. As to abiding by my bargain, I refuse absolutely and unconditionally. I do not acknowledge your authority over me. I will be no man's slave, and--and, sooner than live with you as your wife, I--I will die in a ditch!"
Furiously she flung the words at him, too much carried away by her own madness to note their effect upon him, too angry to see the sudden, leaping flame in his eyes; too utterly reckless to realize that fire kindles fire.
Her fierce wrath was in its way sublime. She was like a beautiful, wild creature raging at its captor, too infuriated to be afraid.
"I defy you," she declared proudly, "to make me do anything against my will!"
There was scorn as well as defiance in her voice--scorn because he stood before her so silently; scorn because the fierce torrent of her anger had flowed unchecked. She had only to stand up to him, it seemed, and like the giant of the fable he dwindled to a pigmy. She was no longer hurt by his passivity. She despised him for it.
But it was for the last time in her life. As she turned contemptuously to pick up her cloak, he moved.
With a single stride he had reached her, and in an instant his hand was on her arm, his face was close to hers. And then she saw, what she had been too self-engrossed to see before, that fire had kindled fire indeed, and that those rash words of hers had waked the savage in him.
She made a sharp, instinctive effort to free herself, but he held her fast. She had outrun his patience at last.
"So," he said, "you defy me, do you? You defy me to take what is my own? That is not very wise of you."
He spoke under his breath, and as he spoke he drew her to him suddenly, violently, with a strength that was brutal. For a moment his eyes compelled hers, terrible eyes alight with a passion that scorched her with its fiery intensity. And then abruptly his arms tightened. She was at his mercy, and he did not spare her. Savagely, fiercely, he rained burning kisses upon her shrinking face, upon her neck, her shoulders, her hands, till, after many seconds of vain resistance, spent, quivering, terrified, she broke into agonized tears against his breast.
His hold relaxed then, but tightened again as her trembling limbs refused to support her. He held her for a while till her agitation had in some degree subsided; then at last he took her two shaking hands into one of his, and turned her face upwards.
Once more his eyes held hers, but the fire in them had died down to a smoulder. His mouth was grim.
"Come!" he said quietly, "you won't defy me after this?"
Her white lips only quivered in reply. She made no further effort to resist him.
Very slowly he took his arm from her, still holding her hands.
"You have married a savage," he said, "but you would never have known it if you had not taunted me with your defiance. Let me tell you now--for it is as well that you should know it--that there is nothing--do you hear?--nothing in this world that I cannot make you do if I so choose! But if you are wise, you will not challenge me to prove this. It is enough for you to know that as I have mastered myself, so I can--and so I will--master you!"
His words fell with a ring of iron. The old inflexibly sombre demeanour by which alone till that night she had always known him clothed him like a coat of mail. Only the grasp of his hand was vital and close. It seemed to burn her flesh.
"I have done!" he said, after a pause. "Have you anything further to say to me?"
She found it within her power to free herself, and did so. She was shaking from head to foot. The untamed violence of the man had appalled her, but his abrupt resumption of self-control was almost more terrible. She felt as if his will compassed and constrained her like bands of iron.
She stood before him in panting silence, a shrinking woman, striving vainly to raise from the dust the shield of pride that he had so rudely shattered and flung aside. She could not speak to him. She had no words. From the depths of her soul she hated him. But--it had come to this--she did not dare to tell him so.
He waited quietly for a few seconds; then unexpectedly, but without vehemence, he held out his hand to her.
"Anne," he said, a subtle change in his deep voice, "fight against me, and you will be miserable, for I am bound to conquer you. But come to me--come to me of your own free will--and I swear before Heaven that I will make you happy."
But Nan held back with horror, almost with loathing, in her eyes. She did not utter a word. There was no need.
His hand fell. For a second the fire that smouldered in his eyes shot upwards to a flame, but it died down again instantly. He turned from her in silence and picked up her cloak.
He did not look at her as he handed it to her, and Nan did not dare to look at him. Dumbly she forced her trembling body into subjection to her will. She crossed the hall without faltering, and went without sound or backward glance up the stairs. And the man was left alone in the flickering firelight.