The Sacrifice by Ethel M. Dell
It had been a hot day at the Law Courts, but a faint breeze had sprung up with the later hours, blowing softly over the river. It caught the tassel of the blind by which Field sat and tapped it against the window-frame, at first gently like a child at play, then with gathering force and insistence till at last he looked up with a frown and rose to fasten it back.
It was growing late. The rose of the afterglow lay upon the water, tipping the silvery ripples with soft colour. It was a magic night. But the wonder of it did not apparently reach him. A table littered with papers stood in front of him bearing a portable electric lamp. He was obviously too engrossed to think of exterior things.
For a space he sat again in silence by the open window, only the faint rustling of the lace curtain being audible. His somewhat hard, clean-shaven face was bent over his work with rigid concentration. His eyelids scarcely stirred.
Then again there came a tapping, this time at the door. The frown returned to his face. He looked up.
The door opened. A small, sharp-faced boy poked in his head. "A lady to see you, sir."
"What?" said Field. His frown deepened. "I can't see any one. I told you so."
"Says she won't go away till she's seen you, sir," returned the boy glibly. "Can't get her to budge, sir."
"Oh, tell her--" said Field, and stopped as if arrested by a sudden thought. "Who is it?" he asked.
A grin so brief that it might have been a mere twitch of the features passed over the boy's face.
"Wouldn't give no name, sir. But she's a nob of some sort," he said. "Got a shiny satin dress on under her cloak."
Field's eyes went for a moment to his littered papers. Then he picked up a newspaper from a chair and threw it over them.
"Show her in!" he said briefly.
He got up with the words, and stood with his back to the window, watching the half-open door.
There came a slight rustle in the passage outside. The small boy reappeared and threw the door wide with a flourish. A woman in a dark cloak and hat with a thick veil over her face entered.
The door closed behind her. Field stood motionless. She advanced with slight hesitation.
"I hope you will forgive me," she said, "for intruding upon you."
Her voice was rich and deep. It held a throb of nervousness. Field came deliberately forward.
"I presume I can be of use to you," he said.
His tone was dry. There was scant encouragement about him as he drew forward a chair.
She hesitated momentarily before accepting it, but finally sat down with a gesture that seemed to indicate physical weakness of some sort.
"Yes, I want your help," she said.
Field said nothing. His face was the face of the trained man of law. It expressed naught beyond a steady, impersonal attention.
He drew up another chair and seated himself facing her.
She looked at him through her veil for several seconds in silence. Finally, with manifest effort, she spoke.
"It was so good of you to admit me--especially not knowing who I was. You recognise me now, of course? I am Lady Violet Calcott."
"I should recognise you more easily," he said in his emotionless voice, "if you would be good enough to put up your veil."
His tone was perfectly quiet and courteous, yet she made a rapid movement to comply, as if he had definitely required it of her. She threw back the obscuring veil and showed him the face of one of the most beautiful women in London.
There was an instant's pause before he said.
"Yes, I recognise you, of course. And--you wanted to consult me?"
"No!" She leaned forward in her chair with white hands clasped. "I wanted to beg you to tell me--why you have refused to undertake Burleigh Wentworth's defence!"
She spoke with a breathless intensity. Her wonderful eyes were lifted to his--eyes that had dazzled half London, but Field only looked down into them as he might have regarded one of his legal documents. A slight, peculiar smile just touched his lips as he made reply.
"I have no objection to telling you, Lady Violet. He is guilty. That is why."
"Ah!" It was a sound like the snapped string of an instrument. Her fingers gripped each other. "So you think that too! Indeed--indeed, you are wrong! But--is that your only reason?"
"Isn't it a sufficient one?" he said.
Her fingers writhed and strained against each other. "Do you mean that it is--against your principles?" she said.
"To defend a guilty man?" questioned the barrister slowly.
She nodded two or three times as if for the moment utterance were beyond her.
Field's eyes had not stirred from her face, yet still they had that legal look as if he searched for some hidden information.
"No," he said finally. "It is not entirely a matter of principle. As you are aware, I have achieved a certain reputation. And I value it."
She made a quick movement that was almost convulsive.
"But you would not injure your reputation. You would only enhance it," she said, speaking very rapidly as if some obstruction to speech had very suddenly been removed. "You are practically on the top of the wave. You would succeed where another man would fail. And indeed--oh, indeed he is innocent! He must be innocent! Things look black against him. But he can be saved somehow. And you could save him--if you would. Think what the awful disgrace would mean to him--if he were convicted! And he doesn't deserve it. I assure you he doesn't deserve it. Ah, how shall I persuade you of that?" Her voice quivered upon a note of despair. "Surely you are human! There must be some means of moving you. You can't want to see an innocent man go under!"
The beautiful eyes were blurred with tears as she looked at him. She caught back a piteous sob. The cloak had fallen from about her shoulders. They gleamed with an exquisite whiteness.
The man's look still rested upon her with unflickering directness. Again that peculiar smile hovered about his grim mouth.
"Yes, I am human," he said, after a pause. "I do not esteem myself as above temptation. As you probably know, I am a self-made man, of very ordinary extraction. But--I do not feel tempted to take up Burleigh Wentworth's defence. I am sorry if that fact should cause you any disappointment. I do not see why it should. There are plenty of other men--abler than I am--who would, I am sure, be charmed to oblige Lady Violet Calcott or any of her friends."
"That is not so," she broke in rapidly. "You know that is not so. You know that your genius has placed you in what is really a unique position. Your name in itself is almost a mascot. You know quite well that you carry all before you with your eloquence. If--if you couldn't get him acquitted, you could get him lenient treatment. You could save his life from utter ruin."
She clasped and unclasped her hands in nervous excitement. Her face was piteous in its strain and pathos.
And still Field looked unmoved upon her distress.
"I am afraid I can't help you," he said. "My eloquence would need a very strong incentive in such a case as this to balance my lack of sympathy."
"What do you mean by--incentive?" she said, her voice very low. "I will do anything--anything in my power--to induce you to change your mind. I never lost hope until--I heard you had refused to defend him. Surely--surely--there is some means of persuading you left!"
For the first time his smile was openly cynical.
"Don't offer me money, please!" he said.
She flushed vividly, hotly.
"Mr. Field! I shouldn't dream of it!"
"No?" he said. "But it was more than a dream with you when you first entered this room."
She dropped her eyes from his.
"I--didn't--realise--" she said in confusion.
He bent forward slightly. It was an attitude well known at the Law Courts. "Didn't realise--" he repeated in his quiet, insistent fashion.
She met his look again--against her will.
"I didn't realise what sort of man I had to deal with," she said.
"Ah!" said Field. "And now?"
She shrank a little. There was something intolerably keen in his calm utterance.
"I didn't do it," she said rather breathlessly. "Please remember that!"
"I do," he said.
But yet his look racked her. She threw out her hands with a sudden, desperate gesture and rose.
"Oh, are you quite without feeling? What can I appeal to? Does position mean a great deal to you? If so, my brother is very influential, and I have influential friends. I will do anything--anything in my power. Tell me what--incentive you want!"
Field rose also. They stood face to face--the self-made man and the girl who could trace her descent from a Norman baron. He was broad-built, grim, determined. She was slender, pale, and proud.
For a moment he did not speak. Then, as her eyes questioned him, he turned suddenly to a mirror over the mantelpiece behind him and showed her herself in her unveiled beauty.
"Lady Violet," he said, and his speech had a steely, cutting quality, "you came into this room to bribe me to defend a man whom I believe to be a criminal from the consequences of his crime. And when you found I was not to be so easily bought as you imagined, you asked me if I were human. I replied to you that I was human, and not above temptation. Since then you have been trying--very hard--to find a means to tempt me. But--so far--you have overlooked the most obvious means of all. You have told me twice over that you will do anything in your power. Do you mean--literally--that?"
He was addressing the face in the glass, and still his look was almost brutally emotionless. It seemed to measure, to appraise. She met it for a few seconds, and then in spite of herself she flinched.
"Will you tell me what you mean?" she said in a low voice.
He turned round to her again.
"Why did you come here yourself?" he said. "And at night?"
She was trembling.
"I had to come myself--as soon as I knew. I hoped to persuade you."
"You thought," he said mercilessly, "that, however I might treat others, I could never resist you."
"I hoped--to persuade you," she said again.
"By--tempting--me?" he said slowly.
She gave a great start. "Mr. Field--"
He put out a quiet hand, and laid it upon her bare arm.
"Wait a moment, please! As I said before, I am not above temptation--being human. You take a very personal interest in Burleigh Wentworth, I think?"
She met his look with quivering eyelids.
"Yes," she said.
"Are you engaged to him?" he pursued.
She winced in spite of herself.
He raised his brows.
"You have refused him, then?"
Her face was burning.
"He hasn't proposed to me--yet," she said. "Perhaps he never will."
"I see." His manner was relentless, his hold compelling. "I will defend Burleigh Wentworth," he said, "upon one condition."
"What is that?" she whispered.
"That you marry me," said Percival Field with his steady eyes upon her face.
She was trembling from head to foot.
"You--you--have never seen me before to-day," she said.
"Yes, I have seen you," he said, "several times. I have known your face and figure by heart for a very long while. I haven't had the time to seek you out. It seems to have been decreed that you should do that part."
Was there cynicism in his voice? It seemed so. Yet his eyes never left her. They held her by some electric attraction which she was powerless to break.
She looked at him, white to the lips.
"Are you--in--earnest?" she asked at last.
Again for an instant she saw his faint smile.
"Don't you know the signs yet?" he said. "Surely you have had ample opportunity to learn them!"
A tinge of colour crept beneath her pallor.
"No one ever proposed to me--like this before," she said.
His hand was still upon her arm. It closed with a slow, remorseless pressure as he made quiet reply to her previous question.
"Yes. I am in earnest."
She flinched at last from the gaze of those merciless eyes.
"You ask the impossible," she said.
"Then it is all the simpler for you to refuse," he rejoined.
Her eyes were upon the hand that held her. Did he know that its grasp had almost become a grip? It was by that, and that alone, that she was made aware of something human--or was it something bestial--behind that legal mask?
Suddenly she straightened herself and faced him. It cost her all the strength she had.
"Mr. Field," she said, and though her voice shook she spoke with resolution, "if I were to consent to this--extraordinary suggestion; if I married you--you would not ask--or expect--more than that?"
"If you consent to marry me," he said, "it will be without conditions."
"Then I cannot consent," she said. "Please let me go!"
He released her instantly, and, turning, picked up her cloak.
But she moved away to the window and stood there with her back to him, gazing down upon the quiet river. Its pearly stillness was like a dream. The rush and roar of London's many wheels had died to a monotone.
The man waited behind her in silence. She had released the blind-cord, and was plucking at it mechanically, with fingers that trembled.
Suddenly the blast of a siren from a vessel in mid-stream shattered the stillness. The girl at the window quivered from head to foot as if it had pierced her. And then with a sharp movement she turned.
"Mr. Field!" she said, and stopped.
He waited with absolute composure.
She made a small but desperate gesture--the gesture of a creature trapped and helpless.
"I--will do it!" she said in a voice that was barely audible. "But if--if you ever come--to repent--don't blame me!"
"I shall not repent," he said.
She passed on rapidly.
"And--you will do your best--to save--Burleigh Wentworth?"
"I will save him," said Field.
She paused a moment; then moved towards him, as if compelled against her will.
He put the cloak around her shoulders, and then, as she fumbled with it uncertainly, he fastened it himself.
"Your veil?" he said.
She made a blind movement. Her self-control was nearly gone. With absolute steadiness he drew it down over her face.
"Have you a conveyance waiting?" he asked.
"Yes," she whispered.
He turned to the door. He was in the act of opening it when she stayed him.
"One moment!" she said.
He stopped at once, standing before her with his level eyes looking straight at her.
She spoke hurriedly behind her veil.
"Promise me, you will never--never let him know--of this!"
He made a grave bow, his eyes unchangeably upon her.
"Certainly," he said.
She made an involuntary movement; her hands clenched. She stood as if she were about to make some further appeal. But he opened the door and held it for her, and such was the finality of his action that she was obliged to pass out.
He followed her into the lift and took her down in unbroken silence.
A taxi awaited her. He escorted her to it.
"Good night!" he said then.
She hesitated an instant. Then, without speaking, she gave him her hand. For a moment his fingers grasped hers.
"You may depend upon me," he said.
She slipped free from his hold. "Thank you," she said, her voice very low.
A few seconds later Field sat again at his table by the window. The wind was blowing in from the river in rising gusts. The blind-tassel tapped and tapped, now here, now there, like a trapped creature seeking frantically for escape. For a space he sat quite motionless, gazing before him as though unaware of his surroundings. Then very suddenly but very quietly he reached out and caught the swaying thing. A moment he held it, then pulled it to him and, taking a penknife from the table, grimly, deliberately, he severed the cord.
The tassel lay in his hand, a silken thing, slightly frayed, as if convulsive fingers had torn it. He sat for a while and looked at it. Then, with that strange smile of his, he laid it away in a drawer.