Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
To Mona fell the task of making preparation for Nan's departure, for Nan herself did not raise a finger to that end. Three days only remained to her of the old free life--three days in which to bid farewell to everybody and everything she knew and loved.
Her husband did not attempt to obtrude his presence upon her during those three days. The man's patience was immense, cloaking him as with a garment of passive strength. He was merely a guest in Colonel Everard's house, and a silent guest at that.
No one knew what had passed between him and his young wife on the night of the Hunt Ball, but it was generally understood that he had asserted his authority over her after a fashion that admitted of no resistance. Only Mona could have told of the white-faced, terrified girl who had lain trembling in her arms all through the dark hours that had followed their interview, but Mona knew when to hold her peace, though it was no love for her brother-in-law that sealed her lips.
So, with a set face, she packed her sister's belongings, never faltering, scarcely pausing for thought, till on the very last day she finished her task, and then sat musing alone in the darkness of the winter evening.
Nan had been out all the afternoon, no one knew exactly where, though it was supposed that she was paying farewell visits. The Colonel, whose courteous instincts would not suffer him to neglect a guest, had been out shooting with his son-in-law all day long. Mona heard them come tramping up the drive and enter the house, as she sat above in the dark. She listened without moving, and knew that one of her sisters was giving them tea in the hall.
Two hours passed, but Nan did not return. Mona rose at last to dress for dinner. Her face shone pale as she lighted her lamp, but her eyes were steadfast; they held no anxiety.
Descending the stairs at length she found Piet waiting below before the fire. He looked round as she came down, looked up the stairs beyond her, and gravely rose to give her his chair.
Mona was generally regarded as hostess in her father's house, though she was not his eldest daughter. She possessed a calmness of demeanour that was conspicuously lacking in all the rest.
She sat down quietly, her hands folded about her knees. "Have you had good sport?" she asked, her serene eyes raised to his.
There was a slight frown between Piet's brows. Hitherto he had always regarded this girl as his friend. To-night, for the first time, she puzzled him. There was something hostile about her something he felt rather than saw, yet of which from the very moment of her coming, he was keenly conscious.
He scarcely answered her query. Already his wits were at work.
Suddenly he asked her a blunt question. "Has Anne come in yet?"
She answered him quite as bluntly, almost as if she had wished for his curt interrogation. "No."
He raised his brows for an instant, then in part reassured by her absolute composure, he merely commented: "She is late."
Mona said nothing. She turned her quiet eyes to the blaze before her. There was not the faintest sign of agitation in her bearing.
"Do you know what she is doing?" He asked the question slowly, half reluctantly it seemed.
Again she looked at him. Clear and contemptuous, her eyes met his.
"Yes, I know."
The words, the look, stabbed him with a swift suspicion. He bent towards her, his hand gripped her wrist.
"What do you mean? Where is she?"
She made no movement to avoid him. A faint, grim smile hovered about her calm mouth.
"I can tell you what I mean," she said quietly. "I cannot tell you where she is."
"Then tell me what you mean," he said between his teeth.
His face was close to hers, and in that moment it was terrible. But Mona did not flinch. The small, bitter smile passed, that was all.
"I mean," she said, speaking very steadily and distinctly, "that you will go back to South Africa without her after all. I mean that by your hateful and contemptible brutality you have driven her from you for ever. I mean that you have forced her into taking a step that will compel you to set her free from your tyranny. I mean that simply and solely to escape from you she has run away with--another man."
A quiver of pain went over her face as she ended. With a swift, passionate movement she rose, flinging her mask of composure aside. The hand that gripped her wrist was bruising her flesh, but she never felt it.
"Yes," she said, with abrupt vehemence. "That is what you have done--you--you! You would not stoop to win her. You chose to take her by force, and force is the one thing in the world that she will never tolerate. You bullied her, frightened her, humiliated her. You drove her to do this desperate thing. And you face me now, you dare to face me, because I am a weak woman. If I were a man, I would kick you out of the house. I--I believe I would kill you! Even Nan cannot hate you or despise you one-tenth as much as I do!"
She ceased, but her eyes blazed their hatred at him as her heart cursed him. She was furious as a tigress that defends her young.
As for the man, his hand was still clenched upon her wrist, but no violent outburst escaped him. He was white to the lips, but he was absolutely sane. If he heard her wild reproaches, he passed them over.
"Who is the man?" he said, and his voice fell like a word of command, arresting, controlling, compelling.
It was not what she had expected. She had been prepared for tempestuous, for overwhelming, wrath. The absence of this oddly disconcerted her. Her own tornado of indignation was checked. She answered him almost involuntarily.
He frowned as if trying to recall the owner of the name, and again without her conscious will she explained.
"You saw him that night at the ball. They were together all the evening."
The frown passed from his face.
"That--cub!" he said slowly. "And"--his eyes were searching hers closely; he spoke with unswerving determination--"where have they gone?"
She withstood his look though she felt its compulsion.
"I refuse to tell you that."
"You know?" he questioned.
"Yes, I know."
"Then you will tell me." He spoke with conviction. She felt as if his eyes were burning her.
"Then you will tell me," he repeated, as if she had not heard him.
"I refuse," she said again; but she said it with a wavering resolution. Undoubtedly there was something colossal about this man. She began to feel the grip of his fingers upon her wrist. The pain of it became intense, yet she knew that he was not intentionally torturing her.
"You are hurting me," she said, and instantly his hold relaxed. But he did not let her go.
"Answer me!" he said.
"Why should I answer you?" It was the last resort of her weakening will.
He betrayed no impatience.
"You will answer me for your sister's sake," he told her grimly.
"What do you mean? You will follow her?"
"I shall follow her."
"And bring her back?"
"Back here? No, certainly not."
"You will hurt her, bully her, terrify her!" The words were quick with agitation.
He ignored them. "Tell me where she is."
She made a last effort.
"If I tell you--will you take me with you?"
"No," he said, "I will not."
"Then--then--" She was looking straight into those pitiless eyes. It seemed she could not help herself. "I will tell you," she said at last. "But you will be kind to her? You will remember how young she is, and that--that you drove her to it?"
Her voice was piteous, her resistance was dead.
"I shall remember," he said very quietly, "one thing only."
"Yes?" she murmured. "Yes?"
"That she is my wife," he said, in the same level tone. "Now--answer me."
And because there was no longer any alternative course, she yielded.
Had he shown himself a raging demon she could have resisted him, and rejoiced in it. But this man, with his rigid self-control, his unswerving resolution, his deadly directness, dominated her irresistibly.
Without argument he had changed her point of view. Without argument or protestation of any sort, he had convinced her that it was no passing fancy of his that had prompted him to choose Nan for his wife. She had vaguely suspected it before. Now she knew.