A man got down from the motor-omnibus that runs from Penzance to St Just-in-Penwith, and turned northwards, uphill towards the Polestar. It was only half past six, but already the stars were out, a cold little wind was blowing from the sea, and the crystalline, three-pulse flash of the lighthouse below the cliffs beat rhythmically in the first darkness.
The man was alone. He went his way unhesitating, but looked from side to side with cautious curiosity. Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night.
He tramped steadily on, always watchful with curiosity. He was a tall, well-built man, apparently in the prime of life. His shoulders were square and rather stiff, he leaned forwards a little as he went, from the hips, like a man who must stoop to lower his height. But he did not stoop his shoulders: he bent his straight back from the hips.
Now and again short, stump, thick-legged figures of Cornish miners passed him, and he invariably gave them goodnight, as if to insist that he was on his own ground. He spoke with the west-Cornish intonation. And as he went along the dreary road, looking now at the lights of the dwellings on land, now at the lights away to sea, vessels veering round in sight of the Longships Lighthouse, the whole of the Atlantic Ocean in darkness and space between him and America, he seemed a little excited and pleased with himself, watchful, thrilled, veering along in a sense of mastery and of power in conflict.
The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old. On the left was a little space set back from the road, and cosy lights of an inn. There it was. He peered up at the sign: “The Tinners’ Rest”. But he could not make out the name of the proprietor. He listened. There was excited talking and laughing, a woman’s voice laughing shrilly among the men’s.
Stooping a little, he entered the warmly-lit bar. The lamp was burning, a buxom woman rose from the white-scrubbed deal table where the black and white and red cards were scattered, and several men, miners, lifted their faces from the game.
The stranger went to the counter, averting his face. His cap was pulled down over his brow.
“Good-evening!” said the landlady, in her rather ingratiating voice.
“Good-evening. A glass of ale.”
“A glass of ale,” repeated the landlady suavely. “Cold night—but bright.”
“Yes,” the man assented, laconically. Then he added, when nobody expected him to say any more: “Seasonable weather.”
“Quite seasonable, quite,” said the landlady. “Thank you.”
The man lifted his glass straight to his lips, and emptied it. He put it down again on the zinc counter with a click.
“Let’s have another,” he said.
The woman drew the beer, and the man went away with his glass to the second table, near the fire. The woman, after a moment’s hesitation, took her seat again at the table with the card-players. She had noticed the man: a big fine fellow, well dressed, a stranger.
But he spoke with that Cornish-Yankee accent she accepted as the natural twang among the miners.
The stranger put his foot on the fender and looked into the fire. He was handsome, well coloured, with well-drawn Cornish eyebrows, and the usual dark, bright, mindless Cornish eyes. He seemed abstracted in thought. Then he watched the card-party.
The woman was buxom and healthy, with dark hair and small, quick brown eyes. She was bursting with life and vigour, the energy she threw into the game of cards excited all the men, they shouted, and laughed, and the woman held her breast, shrieking with laughter.
“Oh, my, it’ll be the death o’ me,” she panted. “Now, come on, Mr. Trevorrow, play fair. Play fair, I say, or I s’ll put the cards down.”
“Play fair! Why who’s played unfair?” ejaculated Mr. Trevorrow. “Do you mean t’accuse me, as I haven’t played fair, Mrs. Nankervis?”
“I do. I say it, and I mean it. Haven’t you got the queen of spades? Now, come on, no dodging round me. I know you’ve got that queen, as well as I know my name’s Alice.”
“Well—if your name’s Alice, you’ll have to have it—”
“Ay, now—what did I say? Did you ever see such a man? My word, but your missus must be easy took in, by the looks of things.”
And off she went into peals of laughter. She was interrupted by the entrance of four men in khaki, a short, stumpy sergeant of middle age, a young corporal, and two young privates. The woman leaned back in her chair.
“Oh, my!” she cried. “If there isn’t the boys back: looking perished, I believe—”
“Perished, Ma!” exclaimed the sergeant. “Not yet.”
“Near enough,” said a young private, uncouthly.
The woman got up.
“I’m sure you are, my dears. You’ll be wanting your suppers, I’ll be bound.”
“We could do with ’em.”
“Let’s have a wet first,” said the sergeant.
The woman bustled about getting the drinks. The soldiers moved to the fire, spreading out their hands.
“Have your suppers in here, will you?” she said. “Or in the kitchen?”
“Let’s have it here,” said the sergeant. “More cosier—if you don’t mind.”
“You shall have it where you like, boys, where you like.”
She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type.
“Ho, Maryann! Evenin’, Maryann! How’s Maryann, now?” came the multiple greeting.
She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.
“I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,” he said.
She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.
“I’ll ask mother,” she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.
When she came in again:
“Yes,” she said, almost whispering. “What will you have?”
“What have you got?” he said, looking up into her face.
“There’s cold meat—”
“That’s for me, then.”
The stranger sat at the end of the table and ate with the tired, quiet soldiers. Now, the landlady was interested in him. Her brow was knit rather tense, there was a look of panic in her large, healthy face, but her small brown eyes were fixed most dangerously. She was a big woman, but her eyes were small and tense. She drew near the stranger. She wore a rather loud-patterned flannelette blouse, and a dark skirt.
“What will you have to drink with your supper?” she asked, and there was a new, dangerous note in her voice.
He moved uneasily.
“Oh, I’ll go on with ale.”
She drew him another glass. Then she sat down on the bench at the table with him and the soldiers, and fixed him with her attention.
“You’ve come from St Just, have you?” she said.
He looked at her with those clear, dark, inscrutable Cornish eyes, and answered at length:
“No, from Penzance.”
“Penzance!—but you’re not thinking of going back there tonight?”
He still looked at her with those wide, clear eyes that seemed like very bright agate. Her anger began to rise. It was seen on her brow. Yet her voice was still suave and deprecating.
“I thought not—but you’re not living in these parts, are you?”
“No—no, I’m not living here.” He was always slow in answering, as if something intervened between him and any outside question.
“Oh, I see,” she said. “You’ve got relations down here.”
Again he looked straight into her eyes, as if looking her into silence.
“Yes,” he said.
He did not say any more. She rose with a flounce. The anger was tight on her brow. There was no more laughing and card-playing that evening, though she kept up her motherly, suave, good-humoured way with the men. But they knew her, they were all afraid of her.
The supper was finished, the table cleared, the stranger did not go. Two of the young soldiers went off to bed, with their cheery:
“Good-night, Ma. Good-night, Maryann.”
The stranger talked a little to the sergeant about the war, which was in its first year, about the new army, a fragment of which was quartered in this district, about America.
The landlady darted looks at him from her small eyes, minute by minute the electric storm welled in her bosom, as still he did not go. She was quivering with suppressed, violent passion, something frightening and abnormal. She could not sit still for a moment. Her heavy form seemed to flash with sudden, involuntary movements as the minutes passed by, and still he sat there, and the tension on her heart grew unbearable. She watched the hands of the dock move on. Three of the soldiers had gone to bed, only the crop-headed, terrier-like old sergeant remained.
The landlady sat behind the bar fidgeting spasmodically with the newspaper. She looked again at the clock. At last it was five minutes to ten.
“Gentlemen—the enemy!” she said, in her diminished, furious voice. “Time, please. Time, my dears. And good-night all!”
The men began to drop out, with a brief good-night. It was a minute to ten. The landlady rose.
“Come,” she said. “I’m shutting the door.”
The last of the miners passed out. She stood, stout and menacing, holding the door. Still the stranger sat on by the fire, his black overcoat opened, smoking.
“We’re closed now, sir,” came the perilous, narrowed voice of the landlady.
The little, dog-like, hard-headed sergeant touched the arm of the stranger.
“Closing time,” he said.
The stranger turned round in his seat, and his quick-moving, dark, jewel-like eyes went from the sergeant to the landlady.
“I’m stopping here tonight,” he said, in his laconic Cornish-Yankee accent.
The landlady seemed to tower. Her eyes lifted strangely, frightening.
“Oh! indeed!” she cried.” Oh, indeed! And whose orders are those, may I ask?”
He looked at her again.
“My orders,” he said.
Involuntarily she shut the door, and advanced like a great, dangerous bird. Her voice rose, there was a touch of hoarseness in it.
“And what might your orders be, if you please?” she cried. “Who might you be, to give orders, in the house?”
He sat still, watching her.
“You know who I am,” he said. “At least, I know who you are.”
“Oh, you do? Oh, do you? And who am I then, if you’ll be so good as to tell me?”
He stared at her with his bright, dark eyes.
“You’re my Missis, you are,” he said. “And you know it, as well as I do.”
She started as if something had exploded in her.
Her eyes lifted and flared madly.
“Do I know it, indeed!” she cried. “I know no such thing! I know no such thing! Do you think a man’s going to walk into this bar, and tell me off-hand I’m his Missis, and I’m going to believe him?—I say to you, whoever you may be, you’re mistaken. I know myself for no Missis of yours, and I’ll thank you to go out of this house, this minute, before I get those that will put you out.”
The man rose to his feet, stretching his head towards her a little. He was a handsomely built Cornishman in the prime of life.
“What you say, eh? You don’t know me?” he said, in his singsong voice, emotionless, but rather smothered and pressing: it reminded one of the girl’s. “I should know you anywhere, you see. I should! I shouldn’t have to look twice to know you, you see. You see, now, don’t you?”
The woman was baffled.
“So you may say,” she replied, staccato. “So you may say. That’s easy enough. My name’s known, and respected, by most people for ten miles round. But I don’t know you.”
Her voice ran to sarcasm. “I can’t say I know you. You’re a perfect stranger to me, and I don’t believe I’ve ever set eyes on you before tonight.”
Her voice was very flexible and sarcastic.
“Yes, you have,” replied the man, in his reasonable way.” Yes, you have. Your name’s my name, and that girl Maryann is my girl; she’s my daughter. You’re my Missis right enough. As sure as I’m Willie Nankervis.”
He spoke as if it were an accepted fact. His face was handsome, with a strange, watchful alertness and a fundamental fixity of intention that maddened her.
“You villain!” she cried. “You villain, to come to this house and dare to speak to me. You villain, you down-right rascal!”
He looked at her.
“Ay,” he said, unmoved. “All that.” He was uneasy before her. Only he was not afraid of her. There was something impenetrable about him, like his eyes, which were as bright as agate.
She towered, and drew near to him menacingly.
“You’re going out of this house, aren’t you?”—She stamped her foot in sudden madness. “This minute!”
He watched her. He knew she wanted to strike him.
“No,” he said, with suppressed emphasis. “I’ve told you, I’m stopping here.”
He was afraid of her personality, but it did not alter him. She wavered. Her small, tawny-brown eyes concentrated in a point of vivid, sightless fury, like a tiger’s. The man was wincing, but he stood his ground. Then she bethought herself. She would gather her forces.
“We’ll see whether you’re stopping here,” she said. And she turned, with a curious, frightening lifting of her eyes, and surged out of the room. The man, listening, heard her go upstairs, heard her tapping at a bedroom door, heard her saying: “Do you mind coming down a minute, boys? I want you. I’m in trouble.”
The man in the bar took off his cap and his black overcoat, and threw them on the seat behind him. His black hair was short and touched with grey at the temples. He wore a well-cut, well-fitting suit of dark grey, American in style, and a turn-down collar. He looked well-to-do, a fine, solid figure of a man. The rather rigid look of the shoulders came from his having had his collar-bone twice broken in the mines.
The little terrier of a sergeant, in dirty khaki, looked at him furtively.
“She’s your Missis?” he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the departed woman.
“Yes, she is,” barked the man. “She’s that, sure enough.”
“Not seen her for a long time, haven’t ye?”
“Sixteen years come March month.”
And the sergeant laconically resumed his smoking.
The landlady was coming back, followed by the three young soldiers, who entered rather sheepishly, in trousers and shirt and stocking-feet. The woman stood histrionically at the end of the bar, and exclaimed:
“That man refuses to leave the house, claims he’s stopping the night here. You know very well I have no bed, don’t you? And this house doesn’t accommodate travellers. Yet he’s going to stop in spite of all! But not while I’ve a drop of blood in my body, that I declare with my dying breath. And not if you men are worth the name of men, and will help a woman as has no one to help her.”
Her eyes sparkled, her face was flushed pink. She was drawn up like an Amazon.
The young soldiers did not quite know what to do. They looked at the man, they looked at the sergeant, one of them looked down and fastened his braces on the second button.
“What say, sergeant?” asked one whose face twinkled for a little devilment.
“Man says he’s husband to Mrs. Nankervis,” said the sergeant.
“He’s no husband of mine. I declare I never set eyes on him before this night. It’s a dirty trick, nothing else, it’s a dirty trick.”
“Why, you’re a liar, saying you never set eyes on me before,” barked the man near the hearth. “You’re married to me, and that girl Maryann you had by me—well enough you know it.”
The young soldiers looked on in delight, the sergeant smoked imperturbed.
“Yes,” sang the landlady, slowly shaking her head in supreme sarcasm, “it sounds very pretty, doesn’t it? But you see we don’t believe a word of it, and how are you going to prove it?” She smiled nastily.
The man watched in silence for a moment, then he said:
“It wants no proof.”
“Oh, yes, but it does! Oh, yes, but it does, sir, it wants a lot of proving!” sang the lady’s sarcasm. “We’re not such gulls as all that, to swallow your words whole.”
But he stood unmoved near the fire. She stood with one hand resting on the zinc-covered bar, the sergeant sat with legs crossed, smoking, on the seat halfway between them, the three young soldiers in their shirts and braces stood wavering in the gloom behind the bar. There was silence.
“Do you know anything of the whereabouts of your husband, Mrs. Nankervis? Is he still living?” asked the sergeant, in his judicious fashion.
Suddenly the landlady began to cry, great scalding tears, that left the young men aghast.
“I know nothing of him,” she sobbed, feeling for her pocket handkerchief. “He left me when Maryann was a baby, went mining to America, and after about six months never wrote a line nor sent me a penny bit. I can’t say whether he’s alive or dead, the villain. All I’ve heard of him’s to the bad—and I’ve heard nothing for years an’ all, now.” She sobbed violently.
The golden-skinned, handsome man near the fire watched her as she wept. He was frightened, he was troubled, he was bewildered, but none of his emotions altered him underneath.
There was no sound in the room but the violent sobbing of the landlady. The men, one and all, were overcome.
“Don’t you think as you’d better go, for tonight?” said the sergeant to the man, with sweet reasonableness. “You’d better leave it a bit, and arrange something between you. You can’t have much claim on a woman, I should imagine, if it’s how she says. And you’ve come down on her a bit too sudden-like.”
The landlady sobbed heart-brokenly. The man watched her large breasts shaken. They seemed to cast a spell over his mind.
“How I’ve treated her, that’s no matter,” he replied. “I’ve come back, and I’m going to stop in my own home—for a bit, anyhow. There you’ve got it.”
“A dirty action,” said the sergeant, his face flushing dark. “A dirty action, to come, after deserting a woman for that number of years, and want to force yourself on her! A dirty action—as isn’t allowed by the law.”
The landlady wiped her eyes.
“Never you mind about law nor nothing,” cried the man, in a strange, strong voice. “I’m not moving out of this public tonight.”
The woman turned to the soldiers behind her, and said in a wheedling, sarcastic tone:
“Are we going to stand it, boys?—Are we going to be done like this, Sergeant Thomas, by a scoundrel and a bully as has led a life beyond mention, in those American mining-camps, and then wants to come back and make havoc of a poor woman’s life and savings, after having left her with a baby in arms to struggle as best she might? It’s a crying shame if nobody will stand up for me—a crying shame—!”
The soldiers and the little sergeant were bristling. The woman stooped and rummaged under the counter for a minute. Then, unseen to the man away near the fire, she threw out a plaited grass rope, such as is used for binding bales, and left it lying near the feet of the young soldiers, in the gloom at the back of the bar.
Then she rose and fronted the situation.
“Come now,” she said to the man, in a reasonable, coldly-coaxing tone, “put your coat on and leave us alone. Be a man, and not worse than a brute of a German. You can get a bed easy enough in St Just, and if you’ve nothing to pay for it sergeant would lend you a couple of shillings, I’m sure he would.”
All eyes were fixed on the man. He was looking down at the woman like a creature spell-bound or possessed by some devil’s own intention.
“I’ve got money of my own,” he said. “Don’t you be frightened for your money, I’ve plenty of that, for the time.”
“Well, then,” she coaxed, in a cold, almost sneering propitiation, “put your coat on and go where you’re wanted—be a man, not a brute of a German.”
She had drawn quite near to him, in her challenging coaxing intentness. He looked down at her with his bewitched face.
“No, I shan’t,” he said. “I shan’t do no such thing. You’ll put me up for tonight.”
“Shall I!” she cried. And suddenly she flung her arms round him, hung on to him with all her powerful weight, calling to the soldiers: “Get the rope, boys, and fasten him up. Alfred—John, quick now—”
The man reared, looked round with maddened eyes, and heaved his powerful body. But the woman was powerful also, and very heavy, and was clenched with the determination of death. Her face, with its exulting, horribly vindictive look, was turned up to him from his own breast; he reached back his head frantically, to get away from it. Meanwhile the young soldiers, after having watched this frightful Laocoon swaying for a moment, stirred, and the malicious one darted swiftly with the rope. It was tangled a little.
“Give me the end here,” cried the sergeant.
Meanwhile the big man heaved and struggled, swung the woman round against the seat and the table, in his convulsive effort to get free. But she pinned down his arms like a cuttlefish wreathed heavily upon him. And he heaved and swayed, and they crashed about the room, the soldiers hopping, the furniture bumping.
The young soldier had got the rope once round, the brisk sergeant helping him. The woman sank heavily lower, they got the rope round several times. In the struggle the victim fell over against the table. The ropes tightened till they cut his arms. The woman clung to his knees. Another soldier ran in a flash of genius, and fastened the strange man’s feet with the pair of braces. Seats had crashed over, the table was thrown against the wall, but the man was bound, his arms pinned against his sides, his feet tied. He lay half fallen, sunk against the table, still for a moment.
The woman rose, and sank, faint, on to the seat against the wall. Her breast heaved, she could not speak, she thought she was going to die. The bound man lay against the overturned table, his coat all twisted and pulled up beneath the ropes, leaving the loins exposed. The soldiers stood around, a little dazed, but excited with the row.
The man began to struggle again, heaving instinctively against the ropes, taking great, deep breaths. His face, with its golden skin, flushed dark and surcharged, he heaved again. The great veins in his neck stood out. But it was no good, he went relaxed. Then again, suddenly, he jerked his feet.
“Another pair of braces, William,” cried the excited soldier. He threw himself on the legs of the bound man, and managed to fasten the knees. Then again there was stillness. They could hear the clock tick.
The woman looked at the prostrate figure, the strong, straight limbs, the strong back bound in subjection, the wide-eyed face that reminded her of a calf tied in a sack in a cart, only its head stretched dumbly backwards. And she triumphed.
The bound-up body began to struggle again. She watched fascinated the muscles working, the shoulders, the hips, the large, clean thighs. Even now he might break the ropes. She was afraid. But the lively young soldier sat on the shoulders of the bound man, and after a few perilous moments, there was stillness again.
“Now,” said the judicious sergeant to the bound man, “if we untie you, will you promise to go off and make no more trouble.”
“You’ll not untie him in here,” cried the woman. “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could blow him.”
There was silence.
“We might carry him outside, and undo him there,” said the soldier. “Then we could get the policeman, if he made any bother.”
“Yes,” said the sergeant. “We could do that.” Then again, in an altered, almost severe tone, to the prisoner. “If we undo you outside, will you take your coat and go without creating any more disturbance?”
But the prisoner would not answer, he only lay with wide, dark, bright, eyes, like a bound animal. There was a space of perplexed silence.
“Well, then, do as you say,” said the woman irritably. “Carry him out amongst you, and let us shut up the house.”
They did so. Picking up the bound man, the four soldiers staggered clumsily into the silent square in front of the inn, the woman following with the cap and the overcoat. The young soldiers quickly unfastened the braces from the prisoner’s legs, and they hopped indoors. They were in their stocking-feet, and outside the stars flashed cold. They stood in the doorway watching. The man lay quite still on the cold ground.
“Now,” said the sergeant, in a subdued voice, “I’ll loosen the knot, and he can work himself free, if you go in, Missis.”
She gave a last look at the dishevelled, bound man, as he sat on the ground. Then she went indoors, followed quickly by the sergeant. Then they were heard locking and barring the door.
The man seated on the ground outside worked and strained at the rope. But it was not so easy to undo himself even now. So, with hands bound, making an effort, he got on his feet, and went and worked the cord against the rough edge of an old wall. The rope, being of a kind of plaited grass, soon frayed and broke, and he freed himself. He had various contusions. His arms were hurt and bruised from the bonds. He rubbed them slowly. Then he pulled his clothes straight, stooped, put on his cap, struggled into his overcoat, and walked away.
The stars were very brilliant. Clear as crystal, the beam from the lighthouse under the cliffs struck rhythmically on the night. Dazed, the man walked along the road past the churchyard. Then he stood leaning up against a wall, for a long time.
He was roused because his feet were so cold. So he pulled himself together, and turned again in the silent night, back towards the inn.
The bar was in darkness. But there was a light in the kitchen. He hesitated. Then very quietly he tried the door.
He was surprised to find it open. He entered, and quietly closed it behind him. Then he went down the step past the bar-counter, and through to the lighted doorway of the kitchen. There sat his wife, planted in front of the range, where a furze fire was burning. She sat in a chair full in front of the range, her knees wide apart on the fender. She looked over her shoulder at him as he entered, but she did not speak. Then she stared in the fire again.
It was a small, narrow kitchen. He dropped his cap on the table that was covered with yellowish American cloth, and took a seat with his back to the wall, near the oven. His wife still sat with her knees apart, her feet on the steel fender and stared into the fire, motionless. Her skin was smooth and rosy in the firelight. Everything in the house was very clean and bright. The man sat silent, too, his head dropped. And thus they remained.
It was a question who would speak first. The woman leaned forward and poked the ends of the sticks in between the bars of the range. He lifted his head and looked at her.
“Others gone to bed, have they?” he asked.
But she remained closed in silence.
“’S a cold night, out,” he said, as if to himself.
And he laid his large, yet well-shapen workman’s hand on the top of the stove, that was polished black and smooth as velvet. She would not look at him, yet she glanced out of the corners of her eyes.
His eyes were fixed brightly on her, the pupils large and electric like those of a cat.
“I should have picked you out among thousands,” he said. “Though you’re bigger than I’d have believed. Fine flesh you’ve made.”
She was silent for some time. Then she turned in her chair upon him.
“What do you think of yourself,” she said, “coming back on me like this after over fifteen years? You don’t think I’ve not heard of you, neither, in Butte City and elsewhere?”
He was watching her with his clear, translucent, unchallenged eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “Chaps comes an’ goes—I’ve heard tell of you from time to time.”
She drew herself up.
“And what lies have you heard about me?” she demanded superbly.
“I dunno as I’ve heard any lies at all—’cept as you was getting on very well, like.”
His voice ran warily and detached. Her anger stirred again in her violently. But she subdued it, because of the danger there was in him, and more, perhaps, because of the beauty of his head and his level drawn brows, which she could not bear to forfeit.
“That’s more than I can say of you,” she said. “I’ve heard more harm than good about you.”
“Ay, I dessay,” he said, looking in the fire. It was a long time since he had seen the furze burning, he said to himself. There was a silence, during which she watched his face.
“Do you call yourself a man?” she said, more in contemptuous reproach than in anger. “Leave a woman as you’ve left me, you don’t care to what!—and then to turn up in this fashion, without a word to say for yourself.”
He stirred in his chair, planted his feet apart, and resting his arms on his knees, looked steadily into the fire, without answering. So near to her was his head, and the close black hair, she could scarcely refrain from starting away, as if it would bite her.
“Do you call that the action of a man?” she repeated.
“No,” he said, reaching and poking the bits of wood into the fire with his fingers. “I didn’t call it anything, as I know of. It’s no good calling things by any names whatsoever, as I know of.”
She watched him in his actions. There was a longer and longer pause between each speech, though neither knew it.
“I wonder what you think of yourself!” she exclaimed, with vexed emphasis. “I wonder what sort of a fellow you take yourself to be!” She was really perplexed as well as angry.
“Well,” he said, lifting his head to look at her, “I guess I’ll answer for my own faults, if everybody else’ll answer for theirs.”
Her heart beat fiery hot as he lifted his face to her. She breathed heavily, averting her face, almost losing her self-control.
“And what do you take me to be?” she cried, in real helplessness.
His face was lifted watching her, watching her soft, averted face, and the softly heaving mass of her breasts.
“I take you,” he said, with that laconic truthfulness which exercised such power over her, “to be the deuce of a fine woman—darn me if you’re not as fine a built woman as I’ve seen, handsome with it as well. I shouldn’t have expected you to put on such handsome flesh: ’struth I shouldn’t.”
Her heart beat fiery hot, as he watched her with those bright agate eyes, fixedly.
“Been very handsome to you, for fifteen years, my sakes!” she replied.
He made no answer to this, but sat with his bright, quick eyes upon her.
Then he rose. She started involuntarily. But he only said, in his laconic, measured way:
“It’s warm in here now.”
And he pulled off his overcoat, throwing it on the table. She sat as if slightly cowed, whilst he did so.
“Them ropes has given my arms something, by Ga-ard,” he drawled, feeling his arms with his hands.
Still she sat in her chair before him, slightly cowed.
“You was sharp, wasn’t you, to catch me like that, eh?” he smiled slowly. “By Ga-ard, you had me fixed proper, proper you had. Darn me, you fixed me up proper—proper, you did.”
He leaned forwards in his chair towards her.
“I don’t think no worse of you for it, no, darned if I do. Fine pluck in a woman’s what I admire. That I do, indeed.”
She only gazed into the fire.
“We fet from the start, we did. And, my word, you begin again quick the minute you see me, you did. Darn me, you was too sharp for me. A darn fine woman, puts up a darn good fight. Darn me if I could find a woman in all the darn States as could get me down like that. Wonderful fine woman you be, truth to say, at this minute.”
She only sat glowering into the fire.
“As grand a pluck as a man could wish to find in a woman, true as I’m here,” he said, reaching forward his hand and tentatively touching her between her full, warm breasts, quietly.
She started, and seemed to shudder. But his hand insinuated itself between her breasts, as she continued to gaze in the fire.
“And don’t you think I’ve come back here a-begging,” he said. “I’ve more than one thousand pounds to my name, I have. And a bit of a fight for a how-de-do pleases me, that it do. But that doesn’t mean as you’re going to deny as you’re my Missis….”