He relinquished his hold with the words, and would have withdrawn his hand, but she made a sharp movement to stay him.
“Do you—really—mean that?” she asked him, a catch in her voice, her head still bent.
“I have said it,” he said.
But still with nervous fingers she sought to detain him.
“What—what would you consider a good and sufficient reason?”
The hand she held clenched slowly upon itself.
“If you can convince me,” he said, his voice very deep and steady, “that to desert me would be for your happiness, I will let you go for that.”
“But how can I convince you?” she said, her face still hidden from him, her hands closed tightly upon his wrist.
“You will be able to do so,” he said, “if you know your own mind.”
“And if—if I fail to satisfy you?” she faltered.
He was silent. After a moment he deliberately freed himself, and turned away.
“Those are my terms,” he said. “If you do not come to me in half an hour I shall conclude that you leave the decision in my hands—in short, that you wish to remain my wife. Think well, Anne, before you take action in this matter. I do not seek to persuade you to either course. Only let me warn you that, whatever your choice, I shall treat it as final. You must realize that fully before you choose.”
He was at the head of the stairs as he ended. Without a pause he began to descend, and she counted his footsteps with a wildly beating heart till they ceased in the room below.
She was alone. In a silence intense she lifted her head at last, and knew that for half an hour she was safe from interruption.
Far away over the snow she heard a distant church clock tolling midnight. It ceased, and in the silence she thought she heard her stretched nerves cracking one by one. Soon—very soon—she would have to go down to him and fight the final battle for her freedom. But she would wait till the very last minute. She would spend the whole of the brief time accorded to her in mustering all her strength. He had swept her pride utterly out of her reach. But surely that was not her only weapon.
What of her hatred—that hatred that had driven her to this mad flight with Jerry? Surely out of that she could fashion a shield that all his savagery could not pierce. Moreover, he had given her his word to abide by her decision whatever it might be, so long as she could convince him of that same hatred that had once blazed so fiercely within her.
But what had happened to it, she wondered? It had wholly ceased to nerve her for resistance. How was it? Was she too physically exhausted to fan it into flame, or had he torn this also from her to wither underfoot with her dead pride? Surely not! With all his boasts of mastery, he had not mastered her yet. She would never submit to him—never, never! Crush her, trample her as he would, she would never yield herself voluntarily to him. It was only when he began to spare her that she found herself wavering. Why had he spared her? she asked herself. Why had he given her that single chance of escape?