Chapter 20




REFUSAL


The process of making a tour of the Sphinx had been a lengthy one. The yacht was beautifully appointed, and there had been much to examine and admire. Brett, who loved every inch of her, from the marvellous little gold figure of a sphinx, which he had had specially designed and carved as a mascot, down to the polished knobs and buttons in the engine-room, had expatiated with considerable length and fervour upon her various beauties and advantages, and by the time he and Ann emerged on to the deck once more it was to find it deserted by the rest of the party.

Brett moved a couple of deck-chairs into a sheltered corner.

"You must be tired," he said remorsefully. "I've kept you standing about an unconscionable time while I yarned on about my old tub. If you'll sit down here, I'll go and fetch you a wrap."

Ann subsided into one of the chairs not unthankfully.

"But I don't want a wrap," she protested.

"You will, presently. You must remember it's September, even though it is a warm evening."

He departed on his errand, returning shortly with a wrap for her shoulders, together with a light rug which he proceeded to tuck carefully round her. She was reminded of the first occasion on which they had met, when the charming way in which he had waited upon Lady Susan had moved her to the reflection that he might be rather an adept in the art of spoiling any woman. But she had not forgotten that he would want to master her first--as he had mastered the bay mare, afterwards coaxing her into friendship.

They conversed desultorily for a time. Then, tossing away the cigarette he was smoking, Brett shot an abrupt question at her.

"Well, so you like the yacht?" he demanded.

She nodded.

"I think it's just perfect," she answered cordially.

"I'm glad. Because"--he leaned forward and looked at her intently with a curious sparkling light in his eyes--"I hope you'll spend a good deal of time on board her."

"I?" Ann endeavoured to speak as casually as possible, warned by that sudden danger-signal.

"Yes. Wouldn't you enjoy cruising about the world a bit?"

"Are you thinking of inviting us all to go for a trip in the Sphinx? I'm afraid," shaking her head, "we're most of us much too busy people to go racing off half across the world at a moment's notice."

"I wasn't thinking of inviting you all," he returned coolly. "Even if the yacht could accommodate you. I was limiting the proposed yachting party to you--and me."

Ann moved restlessly.

"Don't be absurd, Brett."

He laughed--that gay, triumphant laughter of his which always made her a little afraid. It sounded so sure, so carelessly confident.

"Then don't fence with me any longer," he retorted. "What's the use of pretending, anyway?"

"Pretending? I'm afraid I don't understand." She threw a quick, dismayed glance down the length of the deck, devoutly wishing that some one would come along and interrupt them. But there was nobody in sight except one of the crew--and he was keeping his eyes very studiously turned away from the corner where they were seated.

"You don't understand?" Brett's voice roughened a little. "Haven't I made it clear what I want? I want you--"

"No, no!" Ann jumped up from her chair precipitately. "Don't say it, Brett! Please don't. I--I don't want to hear."

There was a note of urgent pleading in her hurried speech, but if he heard it he paid no attention. He was on his feet as quickly as she was. Perhaps if she had looked at him she would have realised that she was drawing upon, herself the very thing she was trying to avoid. But she had averted her face, afraid of the blue flame of his eyes, and his quick movement, silent and certain as the leap of a panther, filled her with a sudden irrational terror. She started to run. Then, her feet entangled in the rug which had slipped to the floor when she sprang up from her seat, she stumbled and pitched helplessly forward.

But she did not reach the ground. Brett's arms closed round her like a vice of steel, and the next moment she felt his lips on hers--on her eyes, her throat, the gleaming curve of moon-white shoulder, straining against them in fierce, possessive kisses that seemed to drain her of all strength to resist.

At last:

"Now do you understand?" he demanded hoarsely. "I love you!... God in heaven! I wonder if you know how much I love you!"

"No, no!" She struggled to free herself from his arms, but he held her in a relentless grip that no power of hers could fight against.

"Let me go!" she gasped, finding herself helpless against him.

His eyes burned down on her.

"I'll let you go when you promise to be my wife--not before. Say you love me, Ann!"

"But I don't--I don't love you at all. Let me go, Brett!" She made another futile effort to release herself, but his grasp never slackened.

"You shall love me!" he declared violently.

With the imperative need of the moment Ann found her courage returning. She realised now that it was to be a battle between them, and she was filled with a cold fury against this man who tried to enforce his will on hers. Suddenly she ceased to struggle, and, bending her head back so that she could see his face, confronted him with a cool, proud defiance.

"I shall hate you if you don't release me at once," she said quietly.

Her face, so close below his own, was milk-white in the moonlight, and her hair glimmered with strange, lurking lights. Wavering gold of hair and eyes and scarlet line of lips--they roused the devil in him. His mouth crushed down on hers once more.

"You may hate me--but, all the same, you'll marry me! I swear it!" he said with grim assurance.

"I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on earth."

It was very quietly uttered, but the absolute conviction of her answer seemed to arrest him. He loosened his clasp of her body, but with the--same movement his fingers slid to her wrist, prisoning it.

"Who would you marry?" he demanded.

She stood perfectly still, unresisting to the grip of his hand on her wrist. There was a mute suggestion of scorn in this very surrender to physical coercion, a poise that asserted an utter freedom of spirit--a freedom of which he could not rob her.

"You don't expect an answer to that question, do you?" she returned.

"Is it young Brabazon--Tony Brabazon?" he pursued, ignoring her reply and speaking with an odd kind of eagerness.

Ann was silent. The instinct of her sex was working in her--the instinct to conceal her real hurt, to throw dust in the eyes of the man who was seeking to tear her secret from her. So she remained silent, and the sudden gleam in Brett's eyes showed that he believed he was answered.

"Then you have thought of marrying--Tony Brabazon?" he said searchingly.

"Perhaps I have," she admitted, reflecting with a brief flash of humour that, in this particular instance, the simple truth was quite the most misleading thing imaginable.

Brett regarded her with a peculiar expression in which resentment and a certain need of indulgence were strangely mingled.

"And you've thought better of it?" he continued, rather as though he were stating a fact of which he had some intrinsic knowledge. Ann felt a trifle puzzled. He and Tony were only card-room acquaintances, and it seemed unlikely that the latter would have confided in him. Yet Brett certainly spoke as though his cognisance of how matters stood betwixt herself and Tony were based on something more substantial than mere guesswork.

"That, also, is possible," she answered non-committally.

"And just as well," commented Brett. "He's a harum-scarum rake of a boy. All the same, as I told you once before, the past doesn't matter to me. It's the future that counts."

He paused, as though he expected her to volunteer some reply. But she merely eyed him with a look of steady indifference.

"You understand, Ann?" he said, with a species of urgency in his tones.

"It sounds quite simple," she replied shortly. "I think I understand plain English--though what you say doesn't interest me. Do you mind releasing my wrist, now?"

"You won't run away if I do?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Where could I run to--on the yacht? Besides, I've no wish for every one to know about this ridiculous scene," she added scornfully, with a downward glance at her prisoned wrist.

His eyes glinted as he released his hold, but he allowed the contemptuous speech to pass without remark. She lifted her arm, frictioning her wrist where his grip had scored a red mark round it. A tumult of anger against him seethed inside her. Her lips felt soiled and she put up her hand and rubbed them distastefully. He interpreted the action with lightning swiftness.

"No," he said, a note of grim triumph in his voice. "You can't undo it."

"I wish," she said with quiet intensity, "I wish I'd never set foot on board your yacht."

"It wouldn't have made a bit of difference," he assured her unconcernedly. "If it hadn't happened here, it would have happened somewhere else. Just as it doesn't matter in the least your refusing me--by the way, I suppose I'm to understand you have refused me?"--mockingly.

"Certainly I've refused you."

"Very good. But even that won't make an atom of difference. You're going to marry me, you know, in the long run."

"I'm not--" she began, then checked herself wearily. "Oh, don't let's go over it all again!" She was very pale, and there were dark shadows of fatigue beneath her eyes.

"We won't," he replied amicably. "We'll go down and see how those reckless penny-a-hundred gamblers are getting on, instead."

With one of the amazingly sudden transitions of which Ann had already discovered he was capable, he dismissed the whole matter as though it were of no importance, and, gathering up her wraps, preceded her in the direction of the companion-way. Here they were met by the bridge players. Their game finished, they were all coming up on deck, laughing and talking as they came. Ann drew back, nervously unprepared for the sudden encounter, but Brett covered her momentary confusion by genial inquiries as to who had won.

"I've won two and fivepence," announced Miss Caroline in satisfied tones. She appeared supremely contented with the evening's harvest.

"These tiresome people are talking of going, Brett," complained Lady Susan. "Do stop them."

"Of course I'll stop them," he replied promptly. "They've all got to drink my health and good luck to the Sphinx before they go. It's her birthday, to-day, by the way," he went on, addressing everybody collectively, "and I insist upon the occasion being properly honoured."

He continued pouring out a stream of light-hearted nonsense, focussing every one's attention on himself, and thus giving Ann time to recover her poise. When, finally, she joined in the general conversation, she was quite composed once more, although she still looked somewhat pale and tired.

The scene with Brett had exhausted her more than she knew. The man's sheer vitality and force were overwhelming, and his efforts to impose his will on hers, to force from her some response to the flaming ardour of his passion, had left her feeling mentally and spiritually sore and bruised, just as, physically, she had ached all over after the buffeting she had received from the waves at Berrier Cove. She longed inexpressibly for the peace and quiet of her own room, and she felt thankful when at length the moment for departure actually arrived.

Lady Susan glanced keenly at her once or twice as they were rowed across the bay to the now deserted quay, but she refrained from making any comment on the girl's appearance of fatigue. It was only as they were walking up the tarred planking of the jetty together, somewhat behind the rest of the party, that she asked with a queer mixtures of tenderness and humour:

"May I guess, Ann?"

"There's--nothing--to guess," said Ann bluntly.

Lady Susan came to a standstill and stood looking down at her with eyes that laughed.

"So you've turned him down?" she queried.

Ann nodded silently.

"Well"--incisively--"it will do him a whole heap of good. He's much too inclined to think the entire world is his for the taking."

Involuntarily Ann laughed outright at the palpable truth of the statement, and with that spontaneous laughter was borne away much of the hurt pride and resentment which had been galling her. It was, after all, absurd to take an irresponsible being like Brett Forrester too seriously.

"I don't altogether envy Brett's wife," pursued Lady Susan judicially. "Still, she'd never find life monotonous, whatever else. He'd probably beat her and drag her round by the hair when he was in a rage. But he'd know how to play the lover, my dear--don't make any mistake about that!"

"I may be old-fashioned," said Ann demurely. "But I don't think I feel particularly attracted by the prospect of being beaten and dragged around by the hair."

Lady Susan's dark eyes twinkled.

"All the same, I don't fancy Brett will allow a little prejudice like that to stand in his way. If I know my nephew--and I think I do--he won't meekly accept his congé and run away and play like a good little boy."

"Oh, I think he quite understands," replied Ann a trifle breathlessly.

Lady Susan shook her head.

"My dear," she said, "Brett is delightful, and I'm ridiculously fond of him. But I'm bound to admit that he hasn't any principles whatever. And he never understands anything he doesn't want to."




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