The Sacrifice by Ethel M. Dell
A very hilarious party gathered at the table that night. Burleigh Wentworth was in uproarious spirits which seemed to infect nearly everyone else.
In the midst of the running tide of joke and banter Violet sat as one apart. Now and then she joined spasmodically in the general merriment, but often she did not know what she laughed at. There was a great fear at her heart, and it tormented her perpetually. That note that she had crumpled and burnt! His eyes had rested upon it during the moment he had held it in his hand. How much had they seen? And what was it that had induced him in the first place to declare his intention of curtailing their visit? Why had he reminded her that she was his wife? Surely he must have heard something--suspected something! But what?
Covertly she watched him during that interminable dinner, watched his clear-cut face with its clever forehead and intent eyes, his slightly scornful, wholly unyielding lips. She cast her thoughts backwards over their honeymoon, trying somehow to trace an adequate reason for the fear that gripped her. He had been very forbearing with her throughout that difficult time. He had been gentle; he had been considerate. Though he had asserted and maintained his mastery over her, though his will had subdued hers, he had never been unreasonable, never so much as impatient, in his treatment of her. He had given her no cause for the dread that now consumed her, unless it were that by his very self-restraint he had inspired in her a fear of the unknown.
No, she had to look farther back than her honeymoon, back to the days of Burleigh Wentworth's trial, and the almost superhuman force by which he had dragged him free. It was that force with which she would have very soon to reckon, that overwhelming, all-consuming power that had wrestled so victoriously in Wentworth's defence. How would it be when she found herself confronted by that? She shivered and dared not think.
The stream of gaiety flowed on around her. Someone--Wentworth she knew later--proposed a game of hide-and-seek by moonlight in and about the old ruins on the shores of the loch. She would have preferred to remain behind, but he made a great point of her going also. She did not know if Percival went or not, but she did not see him among the rest. The fun was fast and furious, the excitement great. Almost in spite of herself she was drawn in.
And then, how it happened she scarcely knew, she found herself hiding alone with Wentworth in a little dark boat-house on the edge of the water. He had a key with him, and she heard him turn it on the inside.
"I think we are safe here," he said, and then in the darkness his arms were round her. He called her by every endearing name that he could think of.
Why was it his ardour failed to reach her? She had yielded to him only that afternoon. She had suffered him to kiss away her tears. But now something in her held her back. She drew herself away.
"Come and sit in the boat!" he said. "We will go on the water as soon as the hue and cry is over. Hush! Don't speak! They are coming now."
They sat with bated breath while the hunt spread round their hiding-place. The water lapped mysteriously in front of them with an occasional gurgling chuckle. The ripples danced far out in the moonlight. It was a glorious night, with a keenness in the air that was like the touch of steel.
Violet drew her cloak more closely about her. She felt very cold.
Someone came and battered at the door. "I'm sure they're here," cried a voice.
"They can't be," said another. "The place is locked, and there's no key."
"Bet you it's on the inside!" persisted the first, and a match was lighted and held to the lock.
The man inside laughed under his breath. The key was dangling between his hands.
"Oh, come on!" called a girl's voice from the distance. "They wouldn't hide in there. It's such a dirty hole. Lady Violet is much too fastidious."
And Violet, sitting within, drew herself together with a little shrinking movement. Yes, that had always been their word for her. She was fastidious. She had rather prided herself upon having that reputation. She had always regarded women who made themselves cheap with scorn.
The chase passed on, and Wentworth's arm slipped round her again. "Now we are safe," he said. "By Jove, dear, how I have schemed for this! It was really considerate of your worthy husband to absent himself."
Again, gently but quite decidedly, she drew herself away. "I think Freda is right," she said. "This is rather a dirty place."
He laughed. "A regular black hole! But wait till I can get you out on to the loch! It's romantic enough out there. But look here, Violet! I've got to come to an understanding with you. Now that we've found each other, darling, we are not going to lose each other again, are we?"
She was silent in the darkness.
He leaned to her and took her hand. "Oh, why did you go and complicate matters by getting married?" he said. "It was such an obvious--such a fatal--mistake. You knew I cared for you, didn't you?"
"You--had never told me so," she said, her voice very low.
"Never told you! I tried to tell you every time we met. But you were always so aloof, so frigid. On my soul, I was afraid to speak. Tell me now!" His hand was fast about hers. "When did you begin to care?"
She sat unyielding in his hold. "I--imagined I cared--a very long time ago," she said, with an effort.
"What! Before that trial business?" he said. "I wish to Heaven I'd known!"
"Why?" she said.
"Because if I'd known I wouldn't have been such a fool," he said with abrupt vehemence. "I would never have run that infernal risk."
"What risk?" she said.
He laughed, a half-shamed laugh. "Oh, I didn't quite mean to let that out. Consider it unsaid! Only a man without ties is apt to risk more than a man who has more to lose. I've had the most fantastic ill-luck this year that ever fell any man's lot before."
"At least you were vindicated," Violet said.
"Oh, that!" said Wentworth. "Well, it was beginning to be time my luck turned, wasn't it? It was rank enough to be caught, but if I'd been convicted, I'd have hanged myself. Now tell me! Was it Field's brilliant defence that dazzled you into marrying him?"
She did not answer him. She turned instead and faced him in the darkness. "Burleigh! What do you mean by risk? What do you mean by being--caught? You don't mean--you can't mean--that you--that you were--guilty!"
Her voice shook. The words tumbled over each other. Her hand wrenched itself free.
"My dear girl!" said Wentworth. "Don't be so melodramatic! No man is guilty until he is proved so. And--thanks to the kindly offices of your good husband--I did not suffer the final catastrophe."
"But--but--but--" Her utterance seemed suddenly choked. She rose, feeling blindly for the door.
"It's locked," said Wentworth, and there was a ring of malice in his voice. "I say, don't be unreasonable! You shouldn't ask unnecessary questions, you know. Other people don't. For Heaven's sake, let's enjoy what we've got and leave the past alone!"
"Open the door!" gasped Violet in a whisper.
He rose without haste. Her white dress made her conspicuous in the dimness. Her cloak had fallen from her, and she seemed unaware of it.
He reached out as if to open the door, and then very suddenly his intention changed. He caught her to him.
"By Heaven," he said, and laughed savagely, "I'll have my turn first!"
She turned in his hold, turned like a trapped creature in the first wild moment of capture, struggling so fiercely that she broke through his grip before he had made it secure.
He stumbled against the boat, but she sprang from him, sprang for the open moonlight and the lapping water, and the next instant she was gone from his sight.