Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
It was very dark over the moors. The solitary lights of a cab crawling almost at a foot pace along the lonely road shone like a will-o'-the-wisp through the snow. It had been snowing for hours, steadily, thickly, and the cold was intense. The dead heather by the roadside had long been completely hidden under that ever-increasing load. It lay in great billows of white wherever the carriage lamps revealed it, stretching away into the darkness, an immense, untrodden desert, wrapped in a deathly silence, more terrible than any sound.
It seemed to Nan, shivering inside that cheerless cab, as if the world had stopped like a run-down watch, and that she alone, with her melancholy equipage, retained in all that vast stillness the power to move.
She wished heartily that she had permitted Jerry to come to the station to meet her, but for some reason not wholly intelligible to herself she had prohibited this. And he, ever obedient to her behests, had sent the conveyance to fetch her, remaining behind himself to complete the preparations for her reception upon which he had been engaged for the past two days at the tiny, incommodious shooting-box which his father had bequeathed to him, and of which not very valuable piece of landed property he was somewhat inordinately proud.
It had been a tedious cross-country journey, and the five miles from the station seemed to Nan interminable. Already deep down in her heart were stirring ghastly doubts regarding the advisability of this mad expedition of hers. Jerry, as she well knew, was fully prepared to enjoy the situation to the utmost. He was a trusty friend in need to her, no more, and she had not the smallest misgiving so far as he was concerned.
He would be to her what he had ever been, breezy comrade, merry friend--romantic cavalier, perhaps, but in such a fashion as to convince her that he was only playing at romance. It had always been his attitude towards her, and she anticipated no change. The boy's natural chivalry had moved her to accept his help, though she well knew that the step she had taken was a desperate one, even for one of the wild Everards. That it would fulfil its purpose she did not doubt. Her husband, she was fully convinced, would take no further steps to deprive her of her liberty. Her notions of legal procedure in such a case were of the haziest, but she had not the faintest doubt that this last, wildest escapade of hers would sooner or later procure her her freedom from the chain that so galled her.
And yet she started and shivered at every creak of the crazy vehicle that was bearing her to the haven of her emancipation. She was horribly, unreasonably afraid, now that she had taken this rash step. Would it upset her father very greatly, she wondered? But surely he would not think badly of her for making a way of escape for herself. He had been powerless to deliver her. Surely, surely he would understand!
The cab jolted to a standstill, and out of the darkness came an eager, boyish voice, bidding her welcome. An impetuous hand wrenched open the door, and she and Jerry were face to face.
She never recalled afterwards crossing the threshold of his little abode. She was numbed and weary in mind and body. But she found herself at length seated before a bright fire, with a cup of steaming tea in her hand, and Jerry hovering about her in high delight; and the comfort of his welcome revived her at length to an active realization of her surroundings.
Clearly the adventure, mad, lawless as it undoubtedly was, was nothing but a picnic to him. He was enjoying himself immensely without a thought of any possible consequences, and it was plain that this was the attitude in which he expected her to regard the matter.
With an effort she responded to his mood, but she could not shake off the burden of doubt and foreboding that oppressed her. She felt as if the long, bitter journey had in some fashion aged her. Jerry's gaiety was as the prattle of a child to her now. They had been children together till that day, but she felt that they could never be so again. Never before had she stopped in her headlong course to look ahead, to count the cost! Now, for the first time, misgivings arose within her upon Jerry's score. What if this boy who had lent himself so lightly, so absolutely freely, to her scheme for deliverance, were made in any way to suffer for his reckless generosity? For this it had been with him--and this only--as she well knew.
With sheer, boyish gallantry, he had offered his protection; with sheer, girlish recklessness, she had accepted it. And now--now she had in a few hours crossed the boundary between childhood and womanhood and she stood aghast, asking herself what she had done!
By what means understanding had come to her she did not stay to question. The tragic force of it overwhelmed all reasoning. She knew beyond all doubting that she had made the most ghastly mistake of her life. She had done it in blindness, but the veil had been rent away; and, horror-struck, she now beheld the accursed quicksand into which they had blundered.
"I say," said Jerry, "you're awfully tired, aren't you? You're positively haggard. I've got quite a decent little dinner for you, and I've done every blessed thing myself. There isn't a soul in the house except us two. I thought you'd like it best."
She smiled at him wanly, and thanked him. He was watching her with friendly, anxious eyes.
"Yes; well, drink that up and have some more. I'm afraid you'll think the accommodation rather poor. It's only a pillbox, you know. I'll show you round when you're ready. I've got my kennel in the kitchen. Best place for a watch-dog, eh? But you've only got to thump on the floor if you want anything. There, that's better. You don't look quite so frozen as you did. Come, it's rather a lark, isn't it?"
His boyish eyes pleaded with her, and again she made a valiant effort to respond. She knew what stupendous efforts he had been making to secure her comfort.
"Everything is perfect," she declared, "and you're the nicest boy in the world. I'm quite warm now. What a dear little hall, to be sure!"
"Hall!" said Jerry. "It's the living-room! But there's another one upstairs that you can sit in. I thought you would like the upper regions all to yourself. We can call on each other, you know, now and then. I say, it's rather a lark, isn't it? Come and see my preparations for dinner."
She went with him into the little bare kitchen, and bestowed lavish praise upon everything she saw.
Jerry's cooking was an accomplishment of which he had some reason to be proud. He was roasting a pheasant for his visitor's delectation.
"I always do the cooking when we camp out," he explained. "Just sit down while I finish peeling the potatoes."
He pointed to a truckle bedstead in the corner; and Nan seated herself and made a determined effort to banish her depression.
Jerry's preparations for his own comfort were anything but elaborate.
"Oh, I could sleep on bare boards," he lightly said, when she commented upon the hardness of his couch. "I know the furniture isn't up to much, but it isn't a bad little shanty when you're used to it. My pater and mater spent their honeymoon here years ago, and I stayed here with two other fellows for three weeks' grouse-shooting a couple of years back. Rare sport we had, too. Do you mind passing over that saucepan? Thanks! I say, Nan, I hope you don't mind it being a bit rough."
"My dear boy," Nan said impulsively, "if it were a palace I shouldn't like it half so well."
Jerry grinned serenely.
"Yes, it's snug, anyhow, and I think you'll like that pheasant. There's another one in the larder, so we shall have something to eat if we're snowed up. That cupboard leads upstairs. Perhaps you would like to go and explore. Dinner in half an hour."
Nan availed herself of this suggestion. She was frankly curious to know what Jerry's ideas of feminine comfort might be. She ascended the steep cottage stairs that wound up to the first floor, looking about her with considerable interest. The narrow staircase was lighted from above, and she finally emerged into a little room in which a fire burned brightly. A sofa had been drawn in front of it, and was piled with cushions. There were one or two basket-chairs, and a small square table bearing a paper-shaded lamp, and a newspaper, a "Punch," Jerry's banjo, and a cigarette case.
The window was covered with a red curtain, and the cosy warmth of the place sent a glow of comfort through Nan. Jerry's efforts had not been in vain.
From this apartment she passed into another beyond, the door of which stood half open, and found herself in a bedroom. A small stove burned in a corner of this, and upon it a kettle steamed merrily. There was room for but little furniture besides the bed, but the general effect was exceedingly comforting to the girl's oppressed soul. She sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned her aching head against the back.
What was happening at home she wondered? Her departure must be known by this time. Mona would have told Piet. She tried to picture the man's untrammelled wrath when he heard. How furious he would be! She shivered a little. She was quite sure he would never want to see her again.
And yet, curiously, there still ran in her brain those words he had uttered on that night that she had defied him--that dreadful night when he had held her in his arms and forced her to endure his hateful kisses!
She could almost hear his deep voice speaking: "Anne, 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!" Make her happy! He! She could not imagine it. And yet it was true that, fighting against him, she was miserable.
With a great sigh, she rose at last and began to remove her outdoor things. It was done--it was done. What was the use of stopping on the wrong side of the hedge to think? She had taken the leap. There could never be any return for her. The actual mistake had been committed long, long ago, when she had married this man for his money. That had been monstrous, contemptible! She realized it now. But that, too, was beyond remedy. Her only hope left was that in his fury he would set her free, and that without injury to Jerry. She had not the faintest notion how he would set about it; but doubtless he would not keep her long in ignorance. He would be more eager now than she had ever been to snap asunder the chain that bound them to each other. Yes, she was quite, quite sure that he would never want to see her again.