The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
Slowly the boats slipped through the shallows by the bank.
Hone sat facing his companion in unbroken silence while he rowed steadily up the stream. But there was no longer anger in his steady eyes. The habit of kindness, which was the growth of a lifetime, had reasserted itself. He had not been created to fulfil a harsh destiny. The chivalry at his heart condemned sternness towards a woman.
And Nina Perceval sat in the stern with the moonlight shining in her eyes and the darkness of a great bitterness in her soul, and waited. Despite her proud bearing she would have given much to have looked into his heart at that moment. Notwithstanding all her scorn of him very deep down in her innermost being she was afraid.
For this was the man who long ago, when she was scarcely more than a child, had blinded her, baffled her, beaten her. He had won her trust, and had used it contemptibly for his own despicable ends. He had turned an innocent game into tragedy, and had gone his way, leaving her life bruised and marred and bitter before it had ripened to maturity. He had put out the sunshine for ever, and now he expected to be forgiven.
But she would never forgive him. He had wounded her too cruelly, too wantonly, for forgiveness. He had laid her pride too low. For even yet, in all her furious hatred of him, she knew herself bound by a chain that no effort of hers might break. Even yet she thrilled to the sound of that soft, Irish voice, and was keenly, painfully aware of him when he drew near.
He did not know it, so she told herself over and over again. No one knew, or ever would know. That advantage, at least, was hers, and she would carry it to her grave. But yet she longed passionately, vindictively, to punish him for the ruin he had wrought, to humble him--this faultless knight, this regimental hero, at whose shrine everybody worshipped--as he had once dared to humble her; to make him care, if it were ever so little--only to make him care--and then to trample him ruthlessly underfoot, as he had trampled her.
She began to wonder how long he meant to maintain that uncompromising silence. From across the water came the gay voices of their fellow-guests, but no other boat was very near them. His face was in the shadow, and she had no clue to his mood.
For a while longer she endured his silence. Then at length she spoke:
He started slightly, as one coming out of deep thought.
"Why don't you make conversation?" she asked, with a little cynical twist of the lips. "I thought you had a reputation for being entertaining."
"Will it entertain you if I ask for an apology?" said Hone.
"An apology!" She repeated the words sharply, and then softly laughed. "Yes, it will, very much."
"And yet you owe me one," said Hone.
"I fear I do not always pay my debts," she answered. "But you will find it difficult to convince me on this occasion that the debt exists."
"Faith, I shall not try!" he returned, with a doggedness that met and overrode her scorn. "The game isn't worth the candle. I know you will think ill of me in either case."
"Why, Major Hone?"
He met her eyes in the moonlight, and she felt as if by sheer force he held them.
"Because," he said slowly, "I have made it impossible for you to do otherwise."
"Surely that is no one's fault but your own?" she said.
"I blame no one else," said Hone.
And with that he bent again to his work as though he had been betrayed into plainer speaking than he deemed advisable, and became silent again.
Nina Perceval trailed her hand in the water and watched the ripples. Those few words of his had influenced her strangely. She had almost for the moment forgotten her enmity. But it returned upon her in the silence. She began to remember those bitter years that stretched behind her, the blind regrets with which he had filled her life--this man who had tricked her, lied to her--ay, and almost broken her heart in those far-off days of her girlhood, before she had learned to be cynical.
"And even if I did believe you," she said, "what difference would it make?"
Hone was silent for a moment. Then--"Just all the difference in the world," he said, his voice very low.
"You value my good opinion so highly?" she laughed. "And yet you will make no effort to secure it?"
He turned his eyes upon her again.
"I would move heaven and earth to win it," he said, and she knew by his tone that he was putting strong restraint upon himself, "if there were the smallest chance of my ever doing so. But I know my limitations; I know it's all no good. Once a blackguard, always a blackguard, eh, Mrs. Perceval? And I'd be a special sort of fool if I tried to persuade you otherwise."
But still she only laughed, in spite of the agitation but half-subdued in his voice.
"I would offer to steer," she remarked irrelevantly, "only I don't feel equal to the responsibility. And since you always get there sooner or later, my help would be superfluous."
"You share the popular belief about my luck?" asked Hone.
"To be sure," she answered gaily. "Even you could scarcely manage to find fault with it."
He drew a deep breath. "Not with you in the boat," he said.
She withdrew her hand from the water, and flicked it in his face.
"Hadn't you better slow down? You are getting overheated. I feel as if I were sitting in front of a huge furnace."
"And you object to it?" said Hone.
"Of course I do. It's unseasonable. You Irish are so tropical."
"It's only by contrast," urged Hone. "You will get acclimatised in time."
She raised her head with a dainty gesture.
"You take a good deal for granted, Major Hone."
"Faith, I know it!" he answered. "It's yourself that has turned my head."
Her laugh held more than a hint of scorn.
"How amusing," she commented, "for both of us!"
"Does it amuse you?" said Hone.
The question did not call for a reply, and she made none. Only once more she gathered up some water out of the magic moonlit ripples, and tossed it in his face.