The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
The roar of the London traffic rose muffled through the London fog. It was a winter afternoon of great murkiness.
In the private sitting-room of a private hotel Nina Perceval sat alone, as she had sat for two dragging, intolerable days, and waited. She had begun to ask herself--she had asked herself many times that day--if she waited in vain. She would remain for the week, whatever happened, but the torture of suspense had become such as she scarcely knew how to endure. Something of the fever of restlessness that had tormented her at Bombay was upon her now, but with it, subtly mingled, was a misery of uncertainty that had not gripped her then. She was unspeakably lonely, and at certain panic-stricken times unspeakably afraid; but whether it was the possibility of his presence or the certainty of his continued absence that appalled her, she could not have said.
A fire burned with a cheery crackling in the room, throwing weird shadows through the dimness. Yet she shivered from time to time as though the chill of the London fog penetrated to her bones. Ah! what was that? She startled violently at the sound of a low knock at the door, then hastily commanded herself. It was only a waiter with the tea she had ordered, of course. With her back to the door she bade him enter.
But, though the door opened and someone entered, there came no jingle of tea things. She did not turn her head. It was as though she could not. She was as one turned to stone. She thought that the wild throbbing of her heart would choke her.
He came straight to her and stood beside her, not offering to touch so much as her hand. The red firelight beat upwards on his face. She ventured a single glance at him, and was oddly shocked by the look he wore. Something of the red glow on the hearth shone back at her from his eyes. She did not dare to look again. Yet when he spoke, though he uttered no greeting, his voice was quite normal, wholly free from agitation.
"I should have been here sooner, but I was scouring London for an old friend. I have found him at last, but, faith, I've had a chase. Do you remember Jasper Caldicott, the parson who went out with us on the Scindia eight years ago?"
"Yes, I remember him." She spoke with a strong effort. Her lips felt stiff and cold.
"He has a parish Whitechapel way," said Hone. "I only found him out this morning. I wanted to bring him to see you."
"Yes?" At his abrupt pause she moved slightly. "But he wouldn't come?"
"He will come some day," said Hone. "But he had some scruple about accompanying me there and then, as I wished. In fact, he wants you to visit him instead."
"Yes?" She almost whispered the word. She was holding the mantelpiece with both hands to steady her trembling limbs.
"Sure, there's nothing to alarm you at all," Hone said. "It'll soon be over. He wants you to do him the honour of being married in his church and there's a taxi below waiting to take you."
"Now?" She turned and faced him, white to the lips.
"Yes, now! By special licence." Sternly he made reply, and again she felt as though the fire in his eyes scorched her.
"And if I--refuse?" She stood up to her full height, flinging her fear from her with a royal gesture that was almost a challenge.
But Hone was ready for her. Hone, the gentle, the kind, the chivalrous, stepped suddenly forth from his garden of virtues with level lance to meet her.
"By the powers," he said, and the words came from between his teeth, "I wonder you dare to ask me that!"
She laughed, but her laughter was slightly hysterical, and in an instant he seized and pressed his advantage.
"It is the end of the game," he grimly told her. "And you are beaten. You told me once that you didn't always pay your debts. But, by Heaven, you shall pay this one!"
By sheer weight he beat down her resistance. Against her will, in spite of her utmost effort, she gave way before him.
A moment she stood in silence. Then, "So be it!" she said, and, turning, left him.
When she joined him again she was so thickly veiled that he could not see her face. She preceded him without a word into the lift, and they went down in utter silence to the waiting taxi. Then side by side through the gloom as though they travelled through space, a myriad lights twinkling all about them, the rush and roar of a universe in their ears, but they two alone in an atmosphere that none other breathed.
It was a journey that neither ever afterwards calculated by time. It was incalculable as the flight of a meteor. And when at last it came to an end, for an instant neither moved.
Then, as though emerging from a dream, Hone rose and alighted, and turned to give his hand to his companion. A little group of ragged urchins stood to view upon the muddy pavement. There was no other pomp to attend the coming of a bride.
Silently they entered a church that was lighted from end to end for evening service. They passed up the aisle through a haze of fog. They halted at the chancel steps....
The knot of urchins had grown to a considerable crowd when they emerged. Women and half-grown girls jostled each other for a glimpse of the bride. But the utmost that any saw was a slender figure wearing a thick veil that walked a little apart from the bridegroom, and entered the waiting motor unassisted.