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"I've turned up again like a bad penny, you see."
Brett, ushered into the living-room at the Cottage by a very depressed-looking Maria, made the announcement with his usual debonair assurance.
"So I see," replied Ann, shaking hands without enthusiasm. "How are you?"
He looked at her critically--at her face, paler than its wont, her shadowed eyes, the slight lines of her figure--grown slighter even during the brief span of a week.
"I'm all right," he returned pointedly. "But I can't say as much for you. What have you been doing in my absence? Pining?"--quizzically.
"Not exactly," she answered dryly. "I've had--oh, various worries. Nothing to do with you, though."
"I'm not so sure," replied Brett, with a flash of sardonic humour, the significance of which was lost on Ann.
"Then I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it," she responded indifferently.
"Are you worrying about this slur on your fair name?" he demanded next, as airily as though he were inquiring if she was worrying about the trimming of a new hat. "My revered aunt has told me all the news, you see."
"Brett, how can you speak like that?" Her voice trembled. "It--it isn't anything to laugh at. It's horrible!"
He regarded her in silence. Then:
"No. It isn't anything to laugh at," he said suddenly. "It's my chance."
He took a quick step towards her and she retreated involuntarily.
"Your chance?" she replied. "What do you mean?"
"My chance to prove that I'm a better lover than Coventry. I understand he's so shocked that he's bolted out of England"--sneeringly. "Well, I'm not. I've come back to ask you to marry me."
Ann quivered at his mention of Eliot's name, but with an effort she forced herself to answer him composedly.
"I can only give you the same answer as before--no, Brett."
"Do explain why," he returned irrepressibly. "I don't care tuppence what people say. In fact, if they dared to say anything after we were married I should jolly well break their heads for them. So that's that. But surely I'm as good a fellow as Coventry--who's apparently cried off at the first sign of storm. I suppose that's what's happened, isn't it?"
She turned and faced him, a spark of anger in her eyes.
"Whatever it is that has happened between Eliot and me, it has nothing to do with you," she said haughtily.
His eyes flickered over her face.
"But I can guess!" he replied imperturbably.
"You?--Guess? How--" She broke off, shaken, as so often before, by his air of complete assurance.
He looked at her with quizzical eyes.
"Shall I tell you?" he said tantalisingly. "Yes, I think I will." He paused, then finished quietly: "I happened to be in Switzerland last spring--when you were."
There was no misunderstanding the intentional significance with which he spoke--no evading the impression that some definitely evil menace lay behind the brief statement of commonplace fact. To Ann it seemed as though some horror, lurking in the shadows of the fire-lit room, had suddenly stirred and were creeping stealthily towards her--impalpable but deadly, nauseous as the poisonous miasma rising from some dark and fetid pool. She shrank back, instinctively putting out her hand as though to ward off whatever threatened.
"You--you?" she stammered.
"Even I"--blandly. His gaze fastened on her face. "I spent a couple of nights--at the Hotel de Loup." Then, as she shrank still further away from him, he added lightly: "Dickens of a lonely place, too!"
"Then--then--" Ann's throat felt dry and constricted, but she struggled for utterance. "Then it was you who told--"
"Yes," he cut in quickly. "It was I who told Coventry about your little escapade up there with Tony Brabazon."
"Ah--!" A choked cry broke from her lips, and she leaned helplessly against the wall behind her.
"It was all quite simple," went on Brett coolly. "You see, I read the entry in the hotel register--and I happened to know that Brabazon had no sister." He rattled glibly on, recounting the episode of the Hotel de Loup with much the same air of inward entertainment with which he had narrated it to Coventry himself. When he had finished he looked across at her with a kind of triumph, no whit ashamed of himself.
There was a long silence. Ann swallowed once or twice, trying to relieve the dreadful feeling of tightness in her throat.
"I suppose," she said at last, speaking with difficulty, "I suppose you told Eliot--on purpose--to separate us?"
She was staring at him with incredulous, horror-stricken eyes. This thing which he had done seemed to her unspeakable--treacherous and contemptible beyond all description. She had the same dazed appearance as some one who has just witnessed a terrible catastrophe--so terrible and unlooked-for as to be almost beyond credence. For an instant her stricken expression and slow, painful utterance brought the faintest possible look of shame to Brett's face. But it was only momentary and passed as swiftly as it had come.
"Well," he confessed, "I didn't want you to marry Coventry, so I tried to stop it--naturally. As I told you--I want you to marry me."
"And you could still want to marry me--thinking what you thought?"
"Certainly I could"--promptly. "Don't you remember, I've told you more than once that the past doesn't count--that nothing a woman might have done would matter to me if I wanted her? I thought you would understand."
"Understand?" Ann laughed mirthlessly. "How should I understand? Tony and I were trapped up there--at the Dents de Loup. It was a pure accident. Hasn't Lady Susan told you? Oh!"--with a quick, tortured movement. "What have I ever done that you could think of me like that?"
"I know--" Once again a fleeting look of shame clouded the blue eyes. "It seems mad--now. Now that it's all explained. But any man might have thought the same. And do me this justice--I loved you well enough to forgive you that, or anything else."
"You loved me!" The contempt in her voice was like a lash across the face. "You to speak of love! Why, you don't know the first meaning of it! No man who loved me would have deliberately set out to destroy my happiness. Did you imagine for one moment that I would marry you after what you've done? Never! Even if I absolutely hated Eliot I wouldn't marry you. Oh!"--smiting her hands together--"I couldn't have believed that any man--even you!"--with blazing scorn--"could have been so wicked--so utterly devoid of anything decent or honest or straight. Have you no feeling, Brett--no mercy, or charity, that you could do such a thing?"
"I've the kind of charity that begins at home," he returned, unabashed. "All's fair in love and war, you know."
"Fair! Surely you're not trying to pretend that you've been fair?"
"I think it was a perfectly legitimate thing to do--in the circumstances," he answered coolly.
She gazed at him, appalled. Lady Susan had indeed been right when she declared that Brett had no principles, and against his unshakable sang-froid Ann felt as helpless to make any impression as a wave beating at the foot of some granite rock.
"When you want something very badly," he explained with the utmost simplicity, "the only way to get it is to forge straight ahead. You can't afford to be squeamish over trifles. And I want you!"--his voice deepening to a sudden intensity.
The old, familiar fear and dread of him rushed over her afresh. She felt sick--sick and terrified.
"Oh, go--go away!" she exclaimed desperately.
"All right, I'll go. But you'll kiss me first."
He took a step towards her. She could not retreat. The wall was immediately behind her. With a sudden sideways movement she twisted and tried to escape him. But it was useless. With incredible swiftness he caught her as she turned, and she felt his arms close round her in a grip of steel. He stooped his head.
"No--no!" she implored piteously. "Brett, let me go! Please--please let me go!" She struggled frantically against him. Then, finding herself helpless in his grasp, she covered her face with her hands, pressing them hard against her cheeks. But she might as well have tried to pit her puny strength against an avalanche. In a moment he had forced down her shielding hands, bending her slender body backwards so that her face lay just below his lips--shelterless and at his mercy. And then she felt his mouth crushed savagely on hers and the turbulence of his passion swept over her as the hot wind sweeps across the desert--scorching and resistless.
When at last he released her she swayed unsteadily.
"Oh, go--go!" she whispered, her hand against her bruised lips.
For a moment he stared at her without speaking.
"All right. I'll go," he said sullenly, at last. "But I shall come back. You'll marry me, Ann--I swear it!"
Vaguely she heard him go--the closing of the door behind him, and, a minute later, the sound of the latch of the gate falling into its socket. Came the trampling of a restive horse on the road outside, followed by the rhythmic beat of cantering hoofs. Then silence.
How long she remained where Brett had left her she never knew. She was oblivious of the passage of time, conscious only of a vast grey sea of misery which seemed to have hemmed her in on every side and which had now risen suddenly and closed over her head. But at last, with a quivering, long-drawn breath, she moved stumblingly across towards the window. The room appeared to her stiflingly hot. Her face burned, and her temples throbbed as though a couple of relentless hammers were beating inside her head. With fumbling, nerveless fingers she unfastened the catch of the window and threw it open, letting in the cool autumnal breeze. She leaned out thankfully, drawing in deep breaths of the clean, salt-laden air. It seemed to lave her face, washing away the hated touch of Forrester's lips on hers, and pressing lightly, like a cool hand, against her aching temples.
For some time she stood there, her mind almost a blank, content just to know that she was alone--freed from the presence of the man whom at this moment she felt she loathed more than any one on earth--and to drink in great draughts of the chill, revivifying air. But presently her thoughts began to stir once more. She grew conscious of her surroundings--of her body, which felt suddenly cold. With a shiver, she closed the window and went over to the fire. She crouched down on the hearthrug, and gradually, as her mind became clearer, she began to piece together all that had happened.
It was a bitter realisation. Her whole happiness had been ruined--utterly and remorselessly, because she and Tony had missed the train at the Dents de Loup. It seemed incredible! Such a trivial, unimportant small happening to have brought the whole fabric of a man's and woman's happiness toppling headlong to the ground! A little hysterical sound--half laugh, half sob--escaped her. And Brett-- She could hardly endure to think of him. It was past belief that any man who loved her--and within herself Ann acknowledged that in his own selfish, masterful way, Brett did love her--could have so ruthlessly flung everything aside--chivalry, honour, and a woman's happiness--in his fierce determination to obtain his ends. Past belief, indeed! Yet it had actually happened, and the consequences would roll on, like the wheels of some dreadful machine, crushing out hope and joy and faith.
Faith! Ann's thoughts checked at the word. That was the one and only thing which could have saved the whole terrible situation. If Eliot had only trusted her, had had faith in her, then neither the unlucky accident at the Dents de Loup nor the treacherous misuse which Brett had made of it could have availed to hurt their love or to destroy their happiness. For a moment a tide of bitterness against her lover for his lack of trust swelled up within her, then her inherent sense of justice drove it back. He had learned distrust--learned it from bitter experience. The entire burden of catastrophe lay actually on the shoulders of the woman who, years ago, had taken a boy's love and faith and broken them like toys between her hands.
Dully Ann wondered who the woman was--wondered whether she would be a little sorry if she could know that another woman was paying so heavily for the wrong which she had done. And then a dreary smile crossed her face. It wouldn't make any difference if that other woman did know. There was nothing she could do to repair the harm she had worked. It was all hopeless--wheel within wheel, link added to link.
Well, it was over--finished. Ann tried to face the fact without blenching. Love had come, for a brief moment transmuting her whole world, and now love had gone again, and it only remained to take up the burden of life once more. Perhaps it would be easier soon. Some day, she supposed, this pain at her heart would cease, just as everything good, bad, and indifferent, comes to an end in time. But no power on earth could alter things--put back the clock. Even if Eliot, driven by the desperate hunger of love, came back to her, nothing would ever be the same again. He had distrusted her, and that distrust would lie between them now and always.
* * * * * * *
Night came, but Ann could not sleep. She tossed restlessly from side to side, her thoughts going round and round in an endless weary circle. Tony and Brett and Eliot, three men who had loved and desired her, each in his own way, and between them they had managed to crush out every atom of happiness that life could hold for her.
Towards morning, utterly worn out, she dropped into an uneasy slumber, from which--it seemed to her--Maria roused her almost at once, and with the return of consciousness the whole deadening weight of recollection fell on her once more. She raised herself wearily on her elbow.
"Is it really time to get up?" she asked languidly. "I feel as if I'd only just gone to sleep."
Maria, bustling about the room pulling up the blinds and drawing back the curtains, paused and looked at the slender figure lying in the bed with eyes full of concern. They were like the faithful, yearning eyes of a dog who senses that you are in trouble but is powerless to help. He can do nothing--only love you. And Maria knew that her adored young mistress was in sore trouble, and that she could do nothing to help--only love her.
"There, drink your cup o' tea, miss, and you'll feel better," she said hearteningly. "A body feels different with a cup o' tea inside. I suppose you've heard the news--since Mr. Forrester himself was here only yesterday?"
Ann set down her tea-cup sharply, her heart beating apprehensively. What was she going to hear now? Something else that would hurt her afresh? She glanced shrinkingly towards Maria.
"No. What news?" she faltered. She did not want to be hurt any more. She felt as though she wouldn't be able to bear it.
"Why, 'twas the milkman told me. Mr. Forrester's off from White Windows to-day. Going away quite sudden like in that there Minx of his." She nodded in the direction of the bay.
The ghost of a smile flitted across Ann's tired face.
"In the Sphinx, you mean," she suggested.
"Yes, miss, jes' what I said, wasn't it?" agreed Maria. "You can see 'em all on board this morning--busy as bees in a hive."
Ann stepped out of bed and went to the window. It was quite true. Far below in the bay she could see the shining Sphinx, and there were signs of unmistakable activity on board. She drew a long breath. If Brett were going, it was good news--not bad! She had always been secretly afraid of him. Now--now that she was aware of the part he had played in the destruction of her happiness, she knew that she would never again be able to see him without recalling all that she had lost. He seemed to her to embody the whole tragedy which had befallen her.
And the yacht--his yacht--waiting, waiting always in the bay, like a cat at a mousehole....
Two hours later Ann stood on the cliff and watched the Sphinx steam slowly out to sea, and with the last gleam of the yacht's white stern it seemed to her as though some inexplicable, still lingering menace were removed.
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