The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
"Won't you sit down?" a quiet voice said.
She started out of what was almost a stupor of grief, to find a man's figure standing close to her. Her eyes were all blinded by weeping, and she could see him but vaguely in the dimness. She had not heard him approach. He seemed to appear from nowhere. Or had he, perchance, been near her all the time?
Instinctively she drew a little away from him, though in that moment of utter desolation even the sympathy of a stranger sent a faint warmth of comfort to her heart.
"There is a chair here," the quiet voice went on, and as she turned vaguely, almost as though feeling her way, a steady hand closed upon her elbow and guided her.
Perhaps it was the touch that, like the shock of an electric current, sent the blood suddenly tingling through her veins, or it may have been some influence more subtle. She was yielding half-mechanically when suddenly, piercing her through and through, there came to her such a flash of revelation as almost deprived her for the moment of her senses.
She stood stock still and faced him.
"Oh, who is it?" she cried piteously. "Who is it?"
The hand that held her tightened ever so slightly. He did not instantly reply, but when he did, it was on a note of grimness that she had never heard from him before.
"It is I--Pat," he told her. "Have you any objection?"
She gazed at him speechlessly as one in a dream. He had followed her, then; he had followed her! But wherefore?
She began to tremble in the grip of sudden, overmastering fear. This was the last thing she had anticipated. What could it mean? Had she driven him demented? Had he pursued her to wreak his vengeance upon her, perhaps to kill her?
Compelled by the pressure of his hand, she moved to the dark seat he had indicated, and sank down.
He stood beside her, looming large in the gloom. A terrible silence fell between them. Worn out by sleeplessness and bitter weeping, she cowered before him dumbly. She had no pride left, no weapon of any sort wherewith to resist him. She longed, yet dreaded unspeakably, to hear his voice. He was watching her, she knew, though she did not dare to raise her head.
He spoke at last, quietly, without emotion, yet with that in his deliberate utterance that made her shrink and quiver in every nerve.
"Faith," he said, "it's been an amusing game entirely, but you haven't beaten me yet. I must trouble you to take up your cards again and play to a finish before we decide who scoops the pool."
"What do you mean?" she whispered.
He did not answer her, and she thought there was something contemptuous in his silence.
She waited a little, summoning her strength, then, rising, with a desperate courage she faced him.
"I don't understand you. Tell me what you mean!"
He made a curious gesture as if he would push her from him.
"I am not good at explaining myself," he said. "But you will understand me better presently."
And again inexplicably she shrank. There was that about him which terrified her more than any uttered menace.
"What are you going to do?" she said nervously. "Why--why have you followed me?"
He answered her in a tone which she deemed scoffing. It was too dark for her to see his face.
"You can hardly expect me to show my hand at this stage," he said. "You never showed me yours."
It was true, and she found no word to say against it. But none the less, she was horribly afraid. She felt herself to be utterly at his mercy, and was instinctively aware that he was in no mood to spare her.
"I can't go on playing, Pat," she said, after a moment, her voice very low. "I have no cards left to play."
"In that case you are beaten," he said, with that doggedness which she was beginning to know as a part of his fighting equipment. "Do you own it?"
"Do you own it?" he insisted sternly.
And, yielding to a sudden impulse that overwhelmed all reason, she threw herself unreservedly upon his mercy.
"Yes, I own it."
He stood silent for several seconds after the admission, while she waited with a thumping heart. At last, half-grudgingly it seemed to her, he spoke.
"You are a wise woman," he said, "even wiser than I took you for, which is saying much. The game is ended, then. But you will pardon me if I refuse to surrender my winnings. Such as they are, I value them."
She bent her head. Her subjection was complete. She was too exhausted, physically and mentally, to attempt to withstand him, and undoubtedly the ultimate victory was his. Had he not witnessed those agonizing tears?
"You are welcome to anything you can find," she said, smiling wanly. "I suppose all experience is of value. At least, I used to think so."
Again for a moment he was silent. Then: "It is the most valuable thing in the world," he said, "if you know how to turn it to account. But, sure, that is a lesson that some of us are slow to learn."
He paused; then, as she remained silent, "You are going below to rest?" he said. "Don't let me keep you! You have travelled hard, and need it."
There was a hint of the old kindliness in his tone. She stood listening to it, longing, yet not daring to avail herself of it and make her peace with him.
But, whatever his intentions, it was apparently no part of Hone's plan to allow himself to be conciliated at that stage, for, after the briefest pause, he bowed abruptly and stepped aside.
And Nina Perceval went humbly away, as befitted one who had played a desperate game, and had been outwitted by the adversary she had dared to despise.