The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
Back once more in the room where the fire crackled, newly replenished, and electric light revealed a shining tea-table, Hone turned to the silent woman beside him.
"Can I write a message? I promised to send one to Teddy as soon as we were married."
She pointed to the writing-table; and moved herself to the fire. There she stood for a few seconds quite motionless, seeming to listen to the scratching of his pen.
He ceased to write, and turned in his chair. For a moment his eyes rested upon her.
"Take off your hat!" he said.
She obeyed him in utter silence. Her hands were stiff and numb with cold. She stooped, the firelight shining on her hair, and held them to the blaze.
Hone rose quietly, and came to her side. He held his message for her to read, and she did so silently.
"Just married. All well. Love.--PAT."
"Will it do?" he said.
She glanced up at him and shivered.
"Is all well?" she asked, in a tone that demanded no answer.
He made none, merely rang the bell and gave orders for the despatch of the message.
Then he came quietly back to her. They stood face to face. She was quite erect, but pale to the lips. She stood before him as a prisoner awaiting sentence, too proud to ask for mercy.
Hone paused a few moments, as if to give her time to speak, to challenge him, to make her defence, or to plead her weakness. Then, as she did none of these things, he suddenly laid steady hands upon her, drew her to him, and, bending, looked closely into her eyes.
"And is there any reason at all why I should not take what is my own?" he said.
She did not resist him, but a long shiver went through her.
"Are you sure it is worth the taking?" she said.
"Quite sure," he answered quietly. "Shall I tell you how I know?"
Her eyes sank before his.
"You will do exactly as you choose."
He was silent for an instant, still intently searching her white face. Then:
"Do you remember that night that you fainted in my arms?" he said. "Do you remember opening your eyes in the boat? Do you know--can you guess--what your eyes told me?"
She was silent; only again from head to foot she shivered.
He went on very quietly, as one absolutely sure of himself:
"I looked into your soul that night, and I saw your secret hidden away in its darkest corner. And I knew it had been there for a long, long time. I knew from that moment that, hate me as you might, you were mine, as I have been yours for so long as I have known you."
She raised her eyes suddenly, stiffening in his grasp.
"And you expect me to believe that of you?" she said, a tremor that was not of fear, in her voice.
"You do believe it," he answered with conviction.
She raised her hands with something of her old imperious grace, and laid them on his arms, freeing herself with a single gesture.
"And all those years ago," she said, "when you made me believe you had been trifling with me--"
"I lied!" said Hone. "It was the hardest thing I ever did. But something had to be done. I did it to save you suffering."
She turned abruptly from him, moving blindly, till groping, she found the mantelpiece, and leaned upon it. Then, her back to him, she spoke:
"And you succeeded in breaking my heart."
A sudden silence fell. Hone stood motionless, his hands fallen to his sides. The dull roar of the streets beat up through the stillness like the roar of a distant sea, bringing to mind a night long, long ago when first he had met his little princess, when first the gay charm of her personality had been cast upon him.
With a resolute effort he spoke.
"But you were scarcely more than a child," he said. "It--sure, it couldn't have been as bad as that?"
At the sound of the pain in his voice she slowly turned.
"It was much worse than that," she said. "While it lasted, it was intolerable. There were times when I thought it would drive me crazy. But you--you were always there, and I think the sight of you kept me sane. I hated you so. I had to show you that I didn't care."
Again he heard in her voice that tremor that was not of fear.
"As long as my husband lived," she went on, "I kept up the miserable farce. As you know, we never loved each other. Then he died, and I found I couldn't bear it any longer. There was no reason why I should. I went away. I should never have seen you again, only Mrs. Chester would take no refusal. And I had put it all away from me by that time. I felt it did not greatly matter if we did meet. Nothing seemed of much importance till that day I saw you on the polo ground, carrying all before you--Achilles triumphant! That day I began to hate you again." A faint smile drew the corners of her mouth. "I think you suspected it," she said, "but your suspicions were soon lulled to rest. Did it never cross your mind to wonder how we came to pair on that night of the river picnic? I accused you of cheating, do you remember? And you were quite indignant." A glimmer of the old gay mischief shone for a fleeting second through her tragedy. "That was the first move in the game," she said. "At least you never suspected me of that."
"No; you had me there." There was a ring of sternness in Hone's voice. "So that was the beginning?" he said.
"And it would have been the end also, if you would have suffered it. For that very night I ceased to hate you." A faint flush tinged her pale face. "I would have let you off," she said. "I didn't want to go on. But you would not have it so. You came after me. You wouldn't leave me alone, even though I warned you--I warned you that I wasn't worth your devotion. And so"--again her voice trembled--"you had to have your lesson after all."
"And do you know what it has taught me?"
Again there sounded in his voice that new mastery that had so strangely overwhelmed her.
She shrank a little as it reached her, and turned her face aside. "I can guess," she said.
"And is it good at guessing that you are?"
He drew nearer to her with the words, but he did not offer to touch her.
She stood motionless, her head bent lest he should see, and understand, the piteous quivering of her lips. With immense effort she made reply:
"It has taught you to hate and despise me, as--as I deserve."
"Faith!" he said. "You think that--honestly now?"
The mastery had all gone out of his voice. It was soft with that caressing quality she knew of old--that tenderness, half-humorous, half-persuasive, that had won her heart so long, so long ago. She did not answer him--for she could not.
He waited for the space of a score of seconds, standing close to her, yet still not touching her, looking down in silence at the proud dark head abased before him.
At last: "It's myself that'll have to tell you, after all," he said gently, "for sure it's the only way to make you understand. It's taught me that we can both be winners, dear, if we play the game squarely, just as we have both been losers all these weary years. But we will have to be partners from this day forward. So just put your little hand in mine, and it'll be all right, mavourneen! Pat'll understand!"
She moved at that--moved sharply, convulsively, passionately. For a moment her eyes met his; for a moment she seemed on the verge of amazed questioning, even of vehement protest.
But--perhaps the grey eyes that looked straight and steadfast into her own made speech seem unnecessary--for she only whispered, "St. Patrick!" in a voice that trembled and broke.
And "Princess! My Princess!" was all he answered as he took her into his arms.