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THE TEETH OF THE WOLF
The gate clicked and Ann peeped rosily out of her bedroom window. She had been expecting that click all morning--waiting for it with every sense alert and with absurd, delicious little thrills of happiness chasing each other through her veins. Several disappointing clicks had preceded it--one which merely revealed a new baker's boy who hadn't troubled to discover whether the Cottage boasted a back-door or not, and another heralding the entry of Billy Brewster, armed with a stout broom and prepared to sweep the flagged path clean of the minutest particle of dust. So that Ann had at last been reluctantly compelled to fall back on the same explanation which had served her once before--that Eliot must have been detained at Heronsmere by unexpected business.
But now the afternoon had brought the desired click of the gate, and she could see his tall, well-knit figure striding up the path below. She leaned out of the window and called to him:
"Coo-ee! I'm up here!"
The charming voice, vibrant with that tender, indescribable inflection which a woman's voice holds only for the one beloved man, floated down to him, and instinctively he looked up. For an instant his glance lingered, and ever afterwards there remained stamped indelibly upon his memory the impression of her as she leaned there like the Blessed Damozel leaning "out from the gold bar of Heaven."
The sun glinted on her hair, turning it into a nimbus of ruddy gold, and there was something delicately flower-like in the droop of her small bent head on its slender throat. It reminded him of a harebell.
His expression hardened as he fought down the tide of longing which surged up within him at the sight of her, and from some disused corner of his subconscious mind the lines of the old Persian Tentmaker seemed to leap out at him and mock him:
"Heav'n but the Vision of fulfill'd Desire, And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire."
The vision which had been his was shattered, utterly destroyed--destined to be forever unfulfilled.
... But Ann remained joyfully oblivious of anything amiss.
"Walk straight in," she called through the window. "I'm coming down." And with a gay wave of her hand she withdrew into the room. Followed a light sound of footsteps on the stairs, and a minute later the door of the living-room flew open to admit her.
Eliot, who had been standing with his back to the room, staring out of the window, wheeled round as she came towards him with hurrying feet and thrust her eager hands into his.
"You've come at last! I thought you'd be here the minute after breakfast," she began, her face breaking into smiles. "If you were a story-book hero you would have been!... Oh, I know you'll say it was business that kept you. But that's only an old married man's excuse"--mirthfully. "I shan't allow you to offer it to me until we've been married for years and years!"
Thus far she had run on gaily with her tender nonsense, but now she checked herself suddenly as she read no answering smile on his face and felt her hands lie flaccidly ungripped in his.
"Eliot"--she drew back a little--"why don't you speak? What is it?" Her hands clutched his spasmodically, and a sudden frightened look blurred the radiance in her eyes. "Oh, my dear! What is it? Have you had bad news?"
Very slowly, but with a strange, deliberate significance, he freed his hands from her clasp and put her away from him.
"Yes," he said quietly, "I've had--news." At the frozen calmness of his tones she shrank back as one shrinks from the numbing cold of the still air that hangs above black ice.
"What is it?" she breathed. "Not bad news--for us?"
Her eyes were fastened on his face, searching it wildly. A quick and terrible fear clamoured at her heart. Was there something in the past, something of which she had no knowledge, that could arise--now--to separate them from each other? That long-ago episode which had wrecked his youth--had the woman who had figured in it some material hold upon him? Could she--was it possible she could still come between them in some way? Ann had heard of such things. It seemed to her as though, betwixt herself and Eliot, there hovered a dim, formless shadow, vague and nebulous--a shadow which had crept silently out from some memory-haunted corner of the past.
"Not bad news--for us?" she repeated quiveringly.
"That depends upon how you choose to regard it," he replied. "Ann"--the ice broke up and he came to the point with a suddenness that was almost brutal--"why haven't you been straight with me?"
"Straight with you?" she repeated wonderingly. "But I have been straight with you."
"What a woman would call straight, I suppose!" he flung back. "Which means concealing everything that you think won't be found out."
The indignant colour rushed up into her face, then receded, leaving it deadly pale.
"But I have nothing to conceal," she answered. "Eliot--I don't understand--"
"Don't you?" lie said, and the measureless contempt in his voice stung like the lash of a whip. "Think back a bit! Is there nothing you've kept from me which I ought to have known--nothing which makes the love you professed only last night no more than a sham?"
For a moment Ann gazed at him in speechless silence. Then a low, passionate denial left her lips.
"Nothing!" she said.
Eliot took two strides towards her, and, gripping her by the shoulders, dragged her closer to the window so that the remorseless sunlight poured down on to her face.
"Repeat that!" he commanded savagely. "Will you dare to repeat that--that unutterable lie?"
His eyes, blazing with a terrible anger that seemed, to scorch her like a flame, searched her face with a scrutiny so pitiless, so implacably incredulous, that it was almost unbearable. But she endured it, and her clear golden eyes met his unflinchingly.
"It was the truth!" she said. Her voice sounded to herself as though it came from a great distance away. It had an odd, tinny sound like cracked metal.
He released her suddenly, almost flinging her from him, and she staggered a little, catching at the back of a chair to steady herself. His roughness roused her spirit.
"Eliot! Are you mad?" she exclaimed.
He stared at her, that burning ferocity of almost uncontrollable anger which had possessed him dying slowly out of his face.
"Mad?" he said grimly. "No, I'm not mad--now. I was mad yesterday--when I believed in you."
The stark agony in his voice smote her to the heart.
"Eliot"--she moved towards him, her hands held out appealingly--"what have I done? Won't you tell me? I don't understand."
"No?" His lips drew back over his teeth in a grimace that was a dreadful travesty of a smile. "Then I'll ask you a simple question. Perhaps--after that--you'll understand. Have you ever stayed at the Hotel de Loup?"
"The Hotel de Loup? Why--" The word "yes" was on the tip of her tongue. But before she could utter it the whole, overwhelming realisation of what he suspected rushed over her, and she checked herself abruptly, stunned into silence. With the amazing speed at which the mind can work in moments of tense excitement, she grasped instantly all that must have happened. Some one--she could not imagine who it was--had found out about that night which she and Tony had been compelled to pass together at the Hotel de Loup, and had made mischief ... told Eliot, putting the worst construction on it ... and he believed ... Oh! What did he not believe? A burning flush bathed her face, mounting to her very temples--a flush of shamed horror, and she fell suddenly silent, staring at him with wide, horrified eyes.
"So you do remember?" he said, his voice like cold steel.
"Yes." She answered him mechanically--like a doll which says "yes" or "no" when some one touches a spring.
"And you were not there alone, I believe?"
The other spring this time. "No," answered the doll.
"Brabazon was with you--Tony Brabazon?"
"Yes." Again the parrot-like reply.
"Then I don't think there is any need to continue this conversation." As he spoke, Eliot turned and walked towards the door. Ann watched him without moving. She felt almost as though she were watching something that was happening in a play--something that had nothing whatever to do with her. Then, just as his hand was on the latch of the door, the strange numbness which had held her motionless and silent seemed to melt away.
"Eliot, come back!" she cried out, and there was a note so ringingly clear and decisive in her voice that involuntarily he halted. "I have listened to you," she went on quietly. "Now--you will listen to me."
He retraced his steps to her side, like a man moving without his own volition, and stood waiting.
"Well?" he said tonelessly. "What is it you wish to say? I am listening."
"It's quite true that I stayed at the Hotel de Loup," she said. "And it's true that Tony Brabazon was with me. But I have nothing to ask your forgiveness for." She lifted her head, meeting his gaze with eyes that were very steady and unashamed. There was something proud and at the same time infinitely appealing in the gesture. But Eliot regarded her unmoved.
"Do you expect me to believe that?" he asked contemptuously. "I'm not a blind fool!... Do you remember, I told you that a man asks all of a woman--past as well as future. Well, you can't give me the past. It belongs to some one else--to Brabazon. I suppose you meant to marry him. And then I come along--and I'm worth more. I don't flatter myself I'm more attractive!"--grimly. "Years ago a woman threw me over because I was poor. And now another woman is ready to throw over some one else and marry me because I'm rich. It's the same stale old story. You're not going to ask me to believe you accepted me from disinterested affection, are you?"
While he spoke, Ann had been standing motionless, every nerve of her taut and strained to the utmost. Outwardly unflinching, inwardly she felt as though he were raining blows upon her. It was all so sordid and horrible. It dragged love through the clinging mire of suspicion and distrust till its radiant wings were soiled and fouled beyond recognition.
"I'm not going to ask you to believe--anything." She spoke very quietly. A bitter, tortured pride upheld her. "If you can think--that--of me, it would be useless asking you to believe anything I might say. Yesterday"--her voice trembled but she steadied it again--"yesterday you told me that the essence of love was possession. It isn't, Eliot.... It's faith ... and trust."
In the silence that followed the man and woman stood gazing dumbly at each other, and for a brief moment love and faith hung quivering in the balance. Then the balance tilted. The heavy burden of suspicion weighed it down, and without another word Eliot turned and left the room.
Ann did not move. She stood quite still, her arms hanging straight down at her sides. The Dents de Loup--wolf's teeth! Well, the jaws of the wolf had closed, crushing her happiness for ever between their merciless white fangs.
She knew now the meaning of that nebulous, distorted shape which had seemed to come betwixt her and the man she loved. It was the grey shadow of distrust which had sprung out from the hidden places of the past and now lay, dark and impenetrable, dividing them for ever.
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