The Sacrifice by Ethel M. Dell
In the safe haven of her own room Violet recovered somewhat. Field left her in the charge of her maid, but the latter she very quickly dismissed. She sat before the fire clad in a wrapper, still shivering spasmodically, but growing gradually calmer.
"I believe there is a letter on the writing-table," she said to the maid as she was about to go out. "Take it with you and put it in the box downstairs!"
The girl returned and took up the letter that Field had written that evening. "It isn't stamped my lady," she began; and then in a tone of surprise: "Why, it is addressed to your ladyship!"
Violet started. "Give it to me!" she commanded "That will do. I shall not be wanting you again to-night."
The girl withdrew, and she crouched lower over the fire, the letter in her hand.
Yes, it was addressed to her in her husband's clear, strong writing--addressed to her and written in her presence!
Her hands were trembling very much as she tore open the envelope. A baffling mist danced before her eyes. For a few seconds she could see nothing. Then with a great effort she commanded herself, and read:
Hers--to take--or leave! She felt again the steady hold upon her arm, the equally steady release. That was what he had meant. That!
She sat bowed like an old woman. He had seen! And instead of being angry on his own account, he was concerned only on hers. She was his own beloved wife. He was--hers to take or leave!
Suddenly a great sob broke from her. She laid her face down upon the note she held....
There came a low knock at the door that divided her room from the one adjoining. She started swiftly up as one caught in a guilty act.
"Can I come in?" Field said.
She made some murmured response, and he opened the dividing door. A moment he stood on the threshold; then he came quietly forward. He carried her cloak upon his arm.
He deposited it upon the back of a chair, and came to her. "I hoped you would be in bed," he said.
"I am trying--to get warm," she muttered almost inarticulately.
"Have you had a hot drink since your accident?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I told West--I couldn't."
He turned and rang the bell. He must have seen his note tightly grasped in her hand, but he made no comment upon it.
"Sit down again!" he said gently, and, stooping, poked the sinking fire into a blaze.
She obeyed him almost automatically. After a moment he laid down the poker, and drew the chair with her in it close to the fender. Then he picked up the cloak and put it about her shoulders, and finally moved away to the door.
She heard him give an order to a servant, and sat nervously awaiting his return. But he did not come back to her. He went outside and waited in the passage.
There ensued an interval of several minutes, and during that time she sat crouched over the fire, holding her cloak about her, and shivering, shivering all over. Then the door which he had left ajar closed quietly, and she knew that he had come back into the room.
She drew herself together, striving desperately to subdue her agitation.
He came to her side and stooped over her. "I want you to drink this," he said.
She glanced up at him swiftly, and as swiftly looked away. "Don't bother about me!" she said. "I--am not worth it."
He passed the low words by. "It's only milk with a dash of brandy," he said. "Won't you try it?"
Very reluctantly she took the steaming beverage from him and began to drink.
He remained beside her, and took the cup from her when she had finished.
"Now," he said, "wouldn't it be wise of you to go to bed?"
She made a movement that was almost convulsive. She had his note still clasped in her hand.
After a moment, without lifting her eyes, she spoke. "Percival, why did you--what made you--write this?"
"I owed it to you," he said.
"You--meant it?" she said, with an effort.
"Yes. I meant it." He spoke with complete steadiness.
"But--but--" She struggled with herself for an instant; then, "Oh, I've got to tell you!" she burst forth passionately. "I'm--very wicked."
"No," he said quietly, and laid a constraining hand upon her as she sat. "That is not so."
She contracted at his touch. "You don't know me. I wrote you a note this evening, trying to explain. I told you I meant to leave you. But--I didn't mean you to read it till I was gone. Did you read it?"
"No," he said. "I guessed what you had done."
Desperately she went on. "You've got to know the worst. I was ready to go away with him. We--were such old friends, and I thought--I thought--I knew him." She bowed herself lower under his hand. Her face was hidden. "I thought he was at least a gentleman. I thought I could trust him. I--believed in him."
"Ah!" said Field. "And now?"
"Now"--her head was sunk almost to her knees--"I know him--for what--he is." Her voice broke in bitter weeping. "And I had given so much--so much--to save him!" she sobbed.
"I know," Field said. "He wasn't worth the sacrifice." He stood for a moment or two as though in doubt; then knelt suddenly down beside her and drew her to him.
She made as if she would resist him, but finally, as he held her, impulsively she yielded. She sobbed out her agony against his breast. And he soothed her as he might have soothed a child.
But though presently he dried her tears, he did not kiss her. He spoke, but his voice was devoid of all emotion.
"You are blaming the wrong person for all this. It wasn't Wentworth's fault. He has probably been a crook all his life. It wasn't yours. You couldn't be expected to detect it. But"--he paused--"don't you realise now why I am offering you the only reparation in my power?" he said.
She was trembling, but she did not raise her head or attempt to move, though his arms were ready to release her.
"No. I don't," she said.
Very steadily he went on: "You have not wronged me. It was I who did the wrong. I could have made you see his guilt. It would have been infinitely easier than establishing his innocence before the world. But--I have always wanted the unattainable. I knew that you were out of reach, and so I wanted you. Afterwards, very soon afterwards, I found I wanted even more than what I had bargained for. I wanted your friendship. That was what the sapphire stood for. You didn't understand. I had handicapped myself too heavily. So I took what I could get, and missed the rest."
He stopped. She still lay against his breast.
"Why did you want--my friendship?" she whispered.
He made a curious gesture, as if he faced at last the inevitable. When he answered her his voice was very low. He seemed to speak against his will. "I--loved you."
"Ah!" It was scarcely more than a breath uttering the words. "And you never told me!"
He was silent.
She raised herself at last and faced him. Her hands were on his shoulders. "Percival," she said, and there was a strange light shining in the eyes that he had dried. "Is your love so small, then--as to be not--worth--mentioning?"
For the first time in her memory he avoided her look. "No," he said.
"What then?" Her voice was suddenly very soft and infinitely appealing.
He opened his arms with a gesture of renunciation "It is--beyond words," he said.
She leaned nearer. Her hands slipped upwards, clasping his neck.
"It is the greatest thing that has ever come to me," she said, and in her voice there throbbed a new note which he had never heard in it before. "Do you think--oh, do you think--I would cast--that--away?"
He did not speak in answer. It seemed as if he could not. That which lay between them was indeed beyond words. Only in the silence he took her again into his arms and kissed her on the lips.