SHE LEANED against the sill, gazing into the darkness. After a while she turned. Hawke was watching her with a complacent smile.
“And it pleases you to torture me! You enjoy seeing a woman suffer. I couldn’t have believed that any man could be such a coward and so mean!”
Hawke laughed pleasantly.
“Give them to me!” she cried.
“Think!” he answered in a mock appeal. “They will be my only consolation after you are married,”
“Give them to me!” she cried again.
Hawke was standing by the fireplace and she moved towards him, changing her tone to one of wondering reproach.
“You can’t mean to keep them! You are just laughing at me—for the minute. Yes! yes! I know. That was your way. But you will give me the letters in the end, won’t you? Look I I will kneel to you for them. Only give them to me!” And she sank on her knees at his feet before the fire.
“They will be much safer with me,” he replied. “You might leave them about. David might pry. And it would strain even his innocence to misunderstand them.”
“Can you think I should keep them?” she said with a shiver of disgust. “Give them to me or burn them yourself! Yes!” she continued, feverishly, clutching his arm, “burn them yourself—now—here—and I will thank you all my life.”
She stirred the coals into a blaze.
“See! They will burn so quickly,” and she darted out her hands towards the file.
Hawke snatched it away. “No, no!” he laughed. “You must vary your game if you mean to win.”
He reached up and hung it on the mirror over his mantelpiece.
“There!” said he. “You will have to jump for them.”
The girl stared at him incredulously; the words seeming to her some trick of her strained senses. But she glanced upwards to the file and sank back with a low moan.
“Will nothing touch you?” she said.
For a moment there was a pause. Only the noise of the brook laughing happily as it raced over the stones behind the house broke the silence in the room. Kate heard it vaguely, and it awoke a reminiscence.
“Do you remember?” she said. “At Poonah? There was a stream running past the verandah there.”
She was speaking wearily, with closed eyes, and the firelight played upon a face as white and impassive as a wax mask.
“Yes I I remember,” answered Hawke, his voice softening with the memory of those few months in India, The recollection was not of what they had thought or said or done—that would not have moved him; but simply of how he had felt towards her. He stood and watched her curiously. The dark lashes began to glisten, and then all in a moment her apathy broke up, and she was shaking in an agony of tears.
“I was never so hard to you,” she faltered between her sobs.
The words floated out freely to Gordon and set his senses reeling. In Hawke they deepened the phantom tenderness already aroused. There was something so childlike in their simplicity. Indeed, as she crouched upon the floor in her abandonment, her white frock stained by her long journey, her sash all crumpled, her loosened hair curling vagrantly about her neck, and her slender figure quivering down to the tips of her shoes, she looked little more than a child masquerading in the emotions of a woman.
He took down the file and swung it irresolutely to and fro upon his finger. Kate turned to him impulsively.
“Give them to me! You promised you would if I came to fetch them. You can’t break that promise now! Think what you have made me risk! Suppose they find out at home? It would have been cruel enough if that had been the only danger. But to bring me to the village where you and Dav—where you and he are the only strangers!”
“That was not my fault,” Hawke interposed. “How could I tell he was going to blunder over here? I only met him this afternoon. However, you needn’t be afraid. The fool’s asleep.”
Gordon felt an almost overpowering impulse to laugh aloud. The irony of the situation was the one thing which his mind could grasp. However, he set his teeth fast to restrain the desire. He would learn all that was to be known first. He could disclose himself to Hawke afterwards.
“Are you sure he suspects nothing?” Kate asked.
“Perfectly. I was with him this evening, I tell you. He left his lamp burning, so that I had to wait until the place was quiet to put it out, for fear you should mistake the house. There is nothing to fear. Why, he told me that he hadn’t even existed until he met you.”
“Don’t!” Kate exclaimed.
“You need not reproach yourself for his credulity. They say it’s quite good for a man to believe in a woman.”
Kate remained silent, knowing that replies were but fuel to his sneers. But her eyes caught the clock and awoke her to the lapse of time.
“Look!” she cried. “It is past one. I must go back, and it is so far. Give me the letters, I am tired,”
Hawke determined to comply. So much the sight of her fresh, young beauty, drooping at his feet, had wrung from him. But he was an epicure where women were concerned. He took a natural delight in evoking their emotions, and when the display gratified him, he allowed no obtrusive knowledge of its cost to them to abridge his enjoyment. So he merely repeated—
“They will be safe with me.”
“I cannot trust you.”
The question rang cold and sharp, like the crack of a pistol. Kate looked at his face and realised that she had lost her ground. But, as she had said, she was tired. She was too over-wrought to choose her phrases.
“I dare not marry him and leave those letters in your hands.”
“Why not? You have trusted me with more than your letters.”
The brutality of the remark was emphasised by the harshness of his tone. But she replied, quietly—
“And you taunt me with my trust! Surely that is reason enough.”
“You are afraid that I shall use them!”
“I don’t know. I only know that if you keep them, I may be his wife, but you will be my master; and I dare not face that.”
The explanation appeased Hawke. It warmed his vanity and disposed him to reward so clear an appreciation of his power. Only the reward she asked was nothing less than the renunciation of that power. He paused over that.
“Tell me,” Kate continued, “why did you force me to come here?”
“I am not sure,” he replied, musingly. “Perhaps I wanted to see you again.”
“No! That was not why. You would have come to me yourself, if that had been the cause.”
“What was the reason, then?” Hawke smiled indulgently. This scrutiny of his intentions added to his satisfaction. It lifted him in his self-esteem, attributed to him an unusual personality. For, as a rule, people find the twenty-four hours barely long enough to discover what their neighbours do, and so are compelled to leave their thoughts and aims alone. Hawke loomed larger on his own horizon, the more particularly because the analyst was a young woman and well-favoured.
“What was the reason?”
“Just my marriage. You felt that I was slipping out of your grasp—escaping you. I know you so well.”
“But it’s almost a year since I have seen you. I have left you alone during all that time. So, even if I had possessed any power, you can’t urge that I have used it.”
“No! But because you possessed it,” Kate insisted. “Because you were certain you possessed it; and so you were content to let things lie. Now, however, everything was changing. I was escaping you; and you made me come here at night, across that horrible lonely pass, just to assert your mastery over me—just to convince yourself it was real. Don’t you see? I dare not go back and leave those letters with you.”
Hawke wavered. If he gave her what she wished, she would escape him, as she had said. She would pass clean beyond his reach. She would have no fear of him—no strong feeling of any kind.
“Suppose that I give you your way,” he said, hesitatingly; “what is going to happen between you and me?”
The unexpected question scared the girl, and she answered, catching her breath—
“Everything was over between us—ages ago, it seems to me. You have not seen me for a year. You said so yourself.”
“Yes! I know,” he replied, slowly, and Kate felt that he was watching her keenly. “But now that I do see you again, it is like meeting you for the first time without the trouble of having to make friends.”
Kate half rose to her feet, with a slight cry.
“Don’t get up!” Hawke exclaimed, and he smoothed her hair caressingly with his hand. “You look so pretty like that.”
She clenched her nails in her palms. Her whole nature rose against the man. The mere touch of his fingers turned her sick. At last, however, she forced herself to meet his gaze. She saw that he was going to speak, and began first, coaxing him, while a deadly humiliation set her cheeks ablaze.
“Friends? Yes! We might be friends. Only give me the letters, and I will think of you as a friend!”
“For just so long as it takes you to reach Keswick.”
“No; always,” she said simply. “You don’t know what a woman can forgive when once she has felt as I have felt towards you.”
There was a pause. Hawke suddenly stripped the letters off the file.
“I will give them to you,” he said.
Kate held out her hands to him eagerly, with a low cry of joy. But Hawke dropped the packet on the table, and seized her outstretched wrists.
“But they have their price,” he whispered, bending over her.
Kate shrank away in a whirl of terror. But his grasp only tightened, and he drew her towards him, laughing.
“Only a kiss,” he said. “One kiss for each.”
“No!” She almost shouted the word.
“Hush!” he laughed. “You will rouse the house. One kiss for each,” and he laughed again almost hysterically.
“It is not a heavy price—it is not even a new price. You have paid it before with nothing to buy. Think of the distance you have come, of the horrible lonely pass!”
He repeated her words with a burlesque shudder. But the taunts fell upon deaf ears. Kate was engrossed in the shame of hia proposal. It was so characteristic of him, she thought. He had chosen the one device which would humiliate her most effectually. Its very puerility added to her sense of degradation. There was a touch of the ludicrous in the notion so grotesquely incongruous with the pain it caused her. She pictured the scene with a spectator. “How he would laugh!” she thought, bitterly. However, there would be no spectator—and it was the only way.
“Well?” Hawke asked.
“Yes!” she replied.
He released her wrists, and she stood up and faced him. He took the letters and handed them to her, one by one; and for each letter that he gave her, she kissed him on the lips.
And outside the window was the spectator. Only he did not laugh.
Hawke also had grown serious. The sight of Kate Nugent after so long an interval, the familiar sound of her voice, and to some degree also a certain distorted pleasure which he drew from the knowledge of Gordon’s proximity, had served to prepare his passions. Now they were tinder to the touch of her lips. So, as he let the last letter go and she turned her face upwards to complete the bargain, he suddenly placed his hands behind her shoulders, drew her towards him, and returned her kiss with a fervour.
The change in him came almost as a relief to Kate. It diminished her sense of humiliation. For the moment he began to show passion, the less she felt herself his toy. So, for a second, she did not resist his embrace. Then she struggled to free herself.
“I have paid you,” she said.
Hawke dropped his arms, and she moved towards the fireplace. One by one, she noted the dates of the letters, tore them across and let them fall into the flames. Then she stood thinking.
“You have not given me all.”
“All I showed you.”
“There are four more, written on my way homo from Calcutta, Aden, Brindisi, and London.”
“Three! You were rude enough to burn one.”
“Where are they?”
“Here!” Hawke tapped his breast pocket as he spoke.
“Fulfil your bargam! Give them to me!”
“They will cost more.”