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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 3. The First Ordeal
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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 3. The First Ordeal Post by :MalcolmL Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2773

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The Knave Of Diamonds - Part 2 - Chapter 3. The First Ordeal

PART II CHAPTER III. THE FIRST ORDEAL

All the birds in the Manor garden were singing on that afternoon in May. The fruit trees were in bloom. The air was full of the indescribable fragrance of bursting flowers. There was no single note of sadness in all the splendid day. But the woman who paced slowly to and fro under the opening lilacs because she could not rest knew nothing of its sweetness.

The precious peace of the past few weeks had been snatched from her. She was face to face once more with the problem that had confronted her for a few horror-stricken minutes on that awful evening in March. Then she had thrust it from her. Since she had resolutely turned her back upon it. But to-day it was with her, and there was no escaping it. It glared at her whichever way she turned, a monster of destruction waiting to devour. And she was afraid, horribly, unspeakably afraid, with a fear that was neither physical nor cowardly, yet which set her very soul a-trembling.

Restlessly she wandered up and down, up and down. It was a day for dreams, but she was terribly and tragically awake.

When Nap Errol came to her at length with his quick, light tread that was wary and noiseless as a cat's, she knew of his coming long before he reached her, was vividly, painfully aware of him before she turned to look. Yesterday she had longed to look him in the face, but to-day she felt she dared not.

Slim and active he moved across the grass, and there came to her ears a slight jingle of spurs. He had ridden then. A sudden memory of the man's free insolence in the saddle swept over her, his domination, his imperial arrogance. Turning to meet him, she knew that she was quivering from head to foot.

He came straight up to her, halted before her. "Have you no welcome for me?" he said.

By sheer physical effort she compelled herself to face him, to meet the fierce, challenging scrutiny which she knew awaited her. She held out her hand to him. "I am always glad to see you, Nap," she said.

He took her hand in a sinewy, compelling grip. "Although you prefer good men," he said.

The ground on which she stood seemed to be shaking, yet she forced herself to smile, ignoring his words.

"Let us go and sit down," she said.

Close by was a seat under a great lilac tree in full purple bloom. She moved to it and sat down, but Nap remained upon his feet, watching her still.

The air was laden with perfume--the wonderful indescribable essences of spring. Away in the distance, faintly heard, arose the bleating of lambs. Near at hand, throned among the purple flowers above their heads, a thrush was pouring out the rapture that thrilled his tiny life. The whole world pulsed to the one great melody--the universal, wordless song. Only the man and the woman were silent as intruders in a sacred place.

Anne moved at last. She looked up very steadily, and spoke. "It seems like holy ground," she said.

Her voice was hushed, yet it had in it a note of pleading. Her eyes besought him.

And in answer Nap leaned down with a sudden, tigerish movement and laid his hand on hers. "What have I to do with holiness?" he said. "Anne, come down from that high pedestal of yours! I'm tired of worshipping a goddess. I want a woman--a woman! I shall worship you none the less because I hold you in my arms."

It was done. The spell was broken. Those quick, passionate words had swept away her last hope of escape. She was forced to meet him face to face, to meet him and to do battle.

For a long second she sat quite still, almost as if stunned. Then sharply she turned her face aside, as one turns from the unbearable heat and radiance when the door of a blast-furnace is suddenly opened.

"Oh, Nap," she said, and there was a sound of heart-break in her words, "What a pity! What a pity!"

"Why?" he demanded fiercely. "I have the right to speak--to claim my own. Are you going to deny it--you who always speak the truth?"

"You have no right," she answered, still with her face averted. "No man has ever the faintest right to say to another man's wife what you have just said to me."

"And you think I will give you up," he said, "for that?"

She did not at once reply. Only after a moment she freed her hands from his hold, and the action seemed to give her strength. She spoke, her voice very clear and resolute. "I am not going to say anything unkind to you. You have already borne too much for my sake. But--you must know that this is the end of everything. It is the dividing of the ways--where we must say good-bye."

"Is it?" he said. He looked down at her with his brief, thin-lipped smile. "Then--if that's so--look at me--look at me, Anne, and tell me that you don't love me!"

She made an almost convulsive gesture of protest and sat silent.

For a little he waited. Then, "That being so," he said very deliberately, "there is no power on earth--I swear--I swear--that shall ultimately come between us!"

"Oh, hush!" she said. "Hush!" She turned towards him, her face white and agitated. "I will not listen to you, Nap. I cannot listen to you! You must go."

She stretched a hand towards him appealingly, and he caught it, crushing it against his breast. For a moment he seemed about to kneel, and then he altered his purpose and drew her to her feet. Again she was aware of that subtle, mysterious force within him, battling with her, seeking to dominate, to conquer, to overwhelm her. Again there came to her that sense of depth, depth unutterable, appalling. She seemed to totter on the very edge of the pit of destruction.

Very quietly at length his voice came to her. It held just a touch of ridicule. "What! Still doing sacrifice to the great god Convention? My dear girl, but you are preposterous! Do you seriously believe that I will suffer that drunken maniac to come between us--now?"

He flung his head back with the words. His fiery eyes seemed to scorch her. And overhead the rapturous bird-voice pealed forth a perfect paean of victory.

But Anne stood rigid, unresponsive as an image of stone. "He is my husband," she said.

She felt his hand tighten upon hers, till the pressure was almost more than she could endure. "You never felt a spark of love for him!" he said. "You married him--curse him!--against your will!"

"Nevertheless, I married him," she said.

He showed his teeth for a moment, and was silent. Then imperiously he swept up his forces for the charge. "These things are provided for in the States," he said. "If you won't come to me without the sanction of the law, I will wait while you get it. I will wait till you are free--till I can make you my lawful wife. That's a fair offer anyway." He began to smile. "See what a slave you have made of me!" he said. "I've never offered any woman marriage before."

But Anne broke in upon him almost fiercely. "Oh, don't you know me better than that?" she said. "Nap, I am not the sort of woman to throw off the yoke like that. It is true that I never loved him, and I do not think that I shall ever live with him again. But still--I married him, and while he lives I shall never be free--never, never!"

"Yet you are mine," he said.

"No--no!"

She sought to free her hand, but he kept it. "Look at me!" he said. "Do you remember that day in March--the day you saw me whipped like a dog?"

Involuntarily she raised her eyes to his. "Oh, don't!" she whispered, shuddering. "Don't!"

But he persisted. "You felt that thrashing far more than I did, though it made a murderer of me. You were furious for my sake. Did you never ask yourself why?" Then in a lower voice, bending towards her, "Do you think I didn't know the moment I saw your face above mine? Do you think I didn't feel the love in your arms, holding me up? Do you think it isn't in your eyes--even now?"

"Oh, hush!" she said again piteously. "Nap, you are hurting me. I cannot bear it. Even if it were so, love--true love--is a sacred thing--not to be turned into sin."

"Sin!" he said. "What is sin? Is it sin to fulfil the very purpose for which you were created?"

But at that she winced so sharply that he knew he had gone too far. It was characteristic of the man that he made no attempt to recover lost ground.

"I'm a wicked pagan no doubt," he said, with a touch of recklessness. "Everyone will tell you so. I fancy I've told you so myself more than once. Yet you needn't shrink as if I were unclean. I have done nothing that you would hate me for since I have known you."

He paused and seemed to listen, then very quietly released her hand. A curious expression flickered across his face as he did so, and a little chill went through her. It was like the closing of the furnace door.

"I am going," he said. "But I shall come back--I shall come back." His smile, sudden and magnetic, gleamed for an instant and was gone.

"Do you remember the missing heart?" he said "There are some things that I never forget."

And so, without farewell, he turned and left her, moving swiftly and easily over the grass. She heard the jingle of his spurs, but no sound of any footfall as he went.

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