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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 12. In The Face Of The Gods
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 12. In The Face Of The Gods Post by :jgcraft Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :894

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 12. In The Face Of The Gods

PART II CHAPTER XII. IN THE FACE OF THE GODS

"Thank the gods, we are the only guests!" said Nap that evening, as they sat down to dine at the table at which they had lunched.

The glare of a lurid sunset streamed across the sky and earth. There was a waiting stillness upon all things. It was the hush before the storm.

An unwonted restlessness had taken possession of Anne. She did not echo his thanksgiving, an omission which he did not fail to note, but upon which he made no comment.

It was in fact scarcely a place for any but day visitors, being some considerable distance from the beaten track. The dinner placed before them was not of a very tempting description, and Anne's appetite dwindled very rapidly.

"You must eat something," urged Nap. "Satisfy your hunger with strawberries and cream."

But Anne had no hunger to satisfy, and she presently rose from the table with something like a sigh of relief.

They went into the drawing-room, a room smelling strongly of musk, and littered largely with furniture of every description. Nap opened wide a door-window that led into a miniature rosegarden. Beyond stretched the common, every detail standing out with marvellous vividness in the weird storm-light.

"St. Christopher!" he murmured softly. "We are going to catch it."

Anne sat down in a low chair near him, gazing forth in silence, her chin on her hand.

He turned a little and looked down at her, and thus some minutes slipped away, the man as tensely still as the awe-stricken world without, the woman deep in thought.

He moved at last with a curious gesture as if he freed and restrained himself by the same action.

"Why don't you think out loud?" he said.

She raised her eyes for a moment. "I was thinking of my husband," she said.

He made a sharp movement--a movement that was almost fierce--and again seemed to take a fresh grip upon himself. His black brows met above his brooding eyes. "Can't you leave him out of the reckoning for this one night?" he asked.

"I think not," she answered quietly.

He turned his face to the sinking sun. It shone like a smouldering furnace behind bars of inky cloud.

"You told me once," he said, speaking with obvious constraint, "that you did not think you would ever live with him again."

She stifled a sigh in her throat. "I thought so then."

"And what has happened to make you change your mind?"

Anne was silent. She could not have seen the fire that leapt and darted in the dusky eyes had she been looking at him, but she was not looking. Her chin was back upon her hand. She was gazing out into the darkening world with the eyes of a woman who sees once more departed visions.

"I think," she said slowly at length, as he waited immovably for her answer, "that I see my duty more clearly now than then."

"Duty! Duty!" he said impatiently. "Duty is your fetish. You sacrifice your whole life to it. And what do you get in return? A sense of virtue perhaps, nothing more. There isn't much warming power in virtue. I've tried it and I know!" He broke off to utter a very bitter laugh. "And so I've given it up," he said. "It's a trail that leads to nowhere."

Anne's brows drew together for an instant. "I hoped you might come to think otherwise," she said.

He shrugged his shoulders. "How can I? I've lived the life of a saint for the past six months, and I am no nearer heaven than when I began. It's too slow a process for me. I wasn't made to plough an endless furrow."

"We all of us say that," said Anne, with her faint smile. "But do we any of us really know what we were made for? Are we not all in the making still?"

He thrust out his chin. "I can't be abstruse tonight. I know what I was made for, and I know what you were made for. That--anyway for tonight--is all that matters."

He spoke almost brutally, yet still he held himself as it were aloof. He was staring unblinking into the sunset. Already the furnace was dying down. The thunder-clouds were closing up. The black bars had drawn together into one immense mass, advancing, ominous. Only through a single narrow slit the red light still shone.

Mutely they watched it pass, Anne with her sad eyes fixed and thoughtful, Nap still with that suggestion of restrained activity as if he watched for a signal.

Gradually the rift closed, and a breathless darkness came.

Anne uttered a little sigh. "I wish the storm would break," she said. "I am tired of waiting."

As if in answer, out of the west there rose a long low rumble.

"Ah!" she said, and no more.

For as if the signal had come, Nap turned with a movement incredibly swift, a movement that was almost a spring, and caught her up into his arms.

"Are you tired of waiting, my Queen--my Queen?" he said, and there was a note of fierce laughter in his words. "Then--by heaven--you shall wait no longer!"

His quick breath scorched her face, and in a moment, almost before she knew what was happening, his lips were on her own. He kissed her as she had never been kissed before--a single fiery kiss that sent all the blood in tumult to her heart. She shrank and quivered under it, but she was powerless to escape. There was sheer unshackled savagery in the holding of his arms, and dismay thrilled her through and through.

Yet, as his lips left hers, she managed to speak, though her voice was no more than a gasping whisper. "Nap, are you mad? Let me go!"

But he only held her faster, faster still.

"Yes, I am mad," he said, and the words came quick and passionate, the lips that uttered them still close to her own. "I am mad for you, Anne. I worship you. And I swear that while I live no other man shall ever hold you in his arms again. Anne--goddess--queen--woman--you are mine--you are mine--you are mine!"

Again his lips pressed hers, and again from head to foot she felt as if a flame had scorched her. Desperately she began to resist him though terribly conscious that he had her at his mercy. But he quelled her resistance instantly, with a mastery that made her know more thoroughly her utter impotence.

"Do you think that you can hold me in check for ever?" he said. "I tell you it only makes me worse. I am a savage, and chains of that sort won't hold me. What is the good of fighting against fate? You have done it as long as I have known you; but you are beaten at last. Oh, you may turn your face from me. It makes no difference now. I've played for this, and I've won! You have been goddess to me ever since the day I met you. To-night--you shall be woman!"

He broke into a low, exultant laugh. She could feel the fierce beating of his heart, and her own died within her. The blaze of his passion ringed her round like a forest fire in which all things perish.

But even then she knew that somewhere, somewhere, there was a way of escape, and with the instinct of the hunted creature she sought it.

"To-night," she said, "I shall know whether you have ever really loved me."

"What?" he said. "You dare to question that now? Do you want to put me to the proof then? Shall I show you how much I love you?"

"No," she said. "Take your arms away!"

She did not expect his obedience, but on the instant he spread them wide and released her.

"And now?" he said.

She almost tottered, so amazing had been his compliance. And then as swiftly--came the knowledge that he had not really set her free. It had pleased him to humour her, that was all. He stood before her with all the arrogance of a conqueror. And through the gathering darkness his eyes shone like the eyes of a tiger--two flames piercing the gloom.

She mustered all her strength to face him, confronting him with that unconscious majesty that first had drawn him to her.

"And now," she said, "let us once and for all understand one another."

"What?" he said. "Don't you understand me yet? Don't you realise--yet--that when a man of my stamp wants a woman he--takes her?"

Again there throbbed in his voice that deep note of savagery, such savagery as made her quail. But it was no moment for shrinking. She knew instinctively that at the first sign of weakness he would take her back into his arms.

She straightened herself therefore, summoning all her pride. "Do you really think I am the sort of woman to be taken so?" she asked. "Do you really think I am yours for the taking? If so, then you have never known me. Nor--till this moment--have I known you."

He heard her without the faintest hint of astonishment or shame, standing before her with that careless animal grace of his that made him in some fashion superb.

"Yes," he said, "I really do think you are mine for the taking this time, but you will admit I've been patient. And I've taken the trouble to make things easy for you. I've spirited you away without putting you through any ordeals of hesitation or suspense. I've done it all quite unobtrusively. To-morrow we go to London, after that to Paris, and after that--whithersoever you will--anywhere under the sun where we can be alone. As to knowing each other"--his voice changed subtly, became soft, with something of a purring quality--"we have all our lives before us, and we shall be learning every day."

His absolute assurance struck her dumb. There was something implacable about it, something unassailable--a stronghold which she felt powerless to attack.

"Doesn't that programme attract you?" he said, drawing nearer to her. "Can you suggest a better? The whole world is before us. Shall we go exploring, you and I, alone in the wilds, and find some Eden that no man has ever trodden before? Shall we, Anne? Shall we? Right away from everywhere, somewhere in the sun, where I can teach you to be happy and you can teach me to be--good."

But at his movement she moved also, drawing back. "No!" she said. Her voice was low, but not lacking in strength. Having spoken, she went on almost without effort. "You are building upon a false foundation. If it were not so, I don't think I could possibly forgive you. As it is, I think when you realise your mistake you will find it hard to forgive yourself. I have treated you as a friend because I thought I could do so with safety. I thought for the sake of my friendship you had given up all thought of anything else. I thought you were to be trusted and I trusted you. Oh, I admit I ought to have known you better. But I shall never make that mistake again."

"No," Nap said. "I don't think you will."

He spoke deliberately; he almost drawled. Yet a sense of danger stabbed her. His sudden coldness was more terrible than his heat.

"But why say this to me now?" he said. "Do you think it will make any difference?"

He had not moved as he uttered the words, and yet she felt as if he menaced her. He made her think of a crouching tiger--a tiger whose devotion had turned to sudden animosity.

She did not shrink from him, but her heart quickened. "It must make a difference," she said. "You have utterly misunderstood me, or you would never have brought me here."

"Don't be too sure of that," he returned. "It may be that you can deceive yourself more easily than you can deceive me. Or again, it may be that I have come to the end of my patience and have decided to take by storm what cannot be won by waiting."

She drew herself up proudly. "And you call that--love!" she said, with a scorn that she had never before turned against him. "You dare to call that--love!"

"Call it what you will!" he flashed back. "It is something that can crush your cold virtue into atoms, something that can turn you from a marble saint into a living woman of flesh and blood. For your sake I've tried--I've agonised--to reach your level. And I've failed because I can't breathe there. To-night you shall come down from your heights to mine. You who have never lived yet shall know life--as I know it--to-night!"

Fiercely he flung the words, and the breath of his passion was like a fiery blast blown from the heart of a raging furnace. But still she did not shrink before him. Proud and calm she waited, bearing herself with a queenly courage that never faltered.

And it was as if she stood in a magic circle, for he raised no hand to touch her. Without word or movement she kept him at bay. Erect, unflinching, regal, she held her own.

He caught his breath as he faced her. The beast in him slunk back afraid, but the devil urged him forward. He came close to her, peering into her face, searching for that weak place in every woman's armour which the devil generally knows how to find. But still he did not offer to touch her. He had let her go out of his arms when he had believed her his own, and now he could not take her again.

"Anne," he said suddenly, "where is your love for me? I will swear you loved me once."

"I never loved you," she answered, her words clear-cut, cold as steel. "I never loved you. Once, it is true, I fancied that you were such a man as I could have loved. But that passed. I did not know you in those days. I know you now."

"And hate me for what you know?" he said.

"No," she answered. "I do not even hate you."

"What then?" he gibed. "You are--sorry for me perhaps?"

"No!" Very distinct and steady came her reply. "I only despise you now."

"What?" he said.

"I despise you," she repeated slowly, "knowing what you might be, and knowing--what you are."

The words passed out in silence--a silence so tense that it seemed as if the world itself had stopped. Through it after many seconds came Nap's voice, so softly that it scarcely seemed to break it.

"It is not always wise to despise an enemy, Lady Carfax--especially if you chance to be in that enemy's power."

She did not deign to answer; but her gaze did not flinch from his, nor did her pride waver.

He drew something abruptly from his pocket and held it up before her. "Do you see this?"

She stirred then, ever so slightly, a movement wholly involuntary, instantly checked. "Are you going to shoot me?" she asked.

"I thought that would make you speak," he remarked. "And you still despise me?"

Her breathing had quickened, but her answer was instant; for the first time it held a throb of anger. "I despise you for a coward. You are even viler than I thought."

He returned the weapon to his pocket. "It is not for you," he said. "I am more primitive than that. It is for the man who stands between us, for the man who thought he could whip Nap Errol--and live. I have never gone unarmed since."

He paused a moment, grimly regarding her. Then, "There is only one thing I will take in exchange for that man's life," he said. "Only--one--thing!"

But she stood like a statue, uttering no word.

A sudden gust of passion swept over him, lashing him to headlong fury. "And that one thing I mean to have!" he told her violently. "No power in heaven or hell shall keep you from me. I tell you"--his voice rose, and in the darkness those two flames glowed more redly, such flames as had surely never burned before in the face of a man--"whatever you may say, you are mine, and in your heart you know it. Sooner or later--sooner or later--I will make you own it." His voice sank suddenly to a whisper, no longer passionate, only inexpressibly evil. "Will you despise me then, Queen Anne? I wonder!--I wonder!"

She moved at last, raised her hand, stiffly pointed. "Go!" she said. "Go!"

Yet for a space he still stood in the doorway, menacing her, a vital figure, lithe, erect, dominant. The tension was terrible. It seemed to be strained to snapping point, and yet it held.

It was the fiercest battle she had ever known--a battle in which his will grappled with hers in a mighty, all-mastering grip, increasing every instant till she felt crushed, impotent, lost, as if all the powers of evil were let loose and seething around her, dragging her down.

Her resolution began to falter at last. She became conscious of a numbing sense of physical weakness, an oppression so overwhelming that she thought her heart would never beat again. Once more she seemed to totter on the edge of a depth too immense to contemplate, to hover above the very pit of destruction...

And then suddenly the ordeal was over. A blinding flash of lightning lit the room, glimmered weirdly, splitting the gloom as a sword rending a curtain, and was gone. There came a sound like the snarl of a startled animal, and the next instant a frightful crash of thunder.

Anne reeled back, dazed, stunned, utterly unnerved, and sank into a chair.

When she came to herself she was alone.

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