Authors: Janet Tanner
IN SPITE OF Alfred's assurances that she would like the house, Rebecca hated it.
It was square and ugly, with only a small perimeter of garden. To the rear, it overlooked a sparse paddock, and the fourth wall, which might have given the most pleasant view over the surrounding countryside, had no windows at all.
Inside, the house was dark, the rooms small and cramped. In vain, Winnie pointed out the advantages of the spare bedrooms, the inside ones reached by way of the outside ones, like a Chinese puzzle. She sang the praises of the walk-in larder with its marble slab for keeping milk and butter cool in summer. But Rebecca hated it, and nothing would change her mind.
And when on the second evening she was home Rupert came calling, she hated it even more. She sat with him in the parlour, and from then on he became a part of the dark and ugly room with its sunless window.
He talked politely enough to begin with, asking her about Wycherley and trying to amuse her with carefully rehearsed stories of happenings in his office. But before long he began inching closer to her, letting his arm slide along the back of the sofa, then down, until it rested on her shoulders. At his touch, she squirmed inwardly, but she didn't know what to do. At least she was sure now it was intentional, but it was no good complaining to her father. He approved of Rupert. And besides, what was there to tell? He wasn't doing anything really improper, just stroking her shoulder with those soft, fleshy fingers of his. But oh! how it made her cringe.
She moved away from him, hoping he might take the hint, but he took her withdrawal for modesty, and followed her along the sofa, gradually making further advances.
“Rupert, don't, please,” she said, embarrassed.
“Why not?” he asked, his voice low and silky.
“Because I don't like it.”
“Oh, Rebecca!” he chided playfully, moving closer. “Don't be unkind to me. I've always liked you, you know. Even when we were children â¦”
She could feel his breath on her cheek as he turned towards her, and she knew he was going to try to kiss her. With a quick, desperate movement, she stood up, and walked over to the fire-place.
“I said no, Rupert. I don't want you to do that.”
He let his arms fall back into his lap, and his small eyes were narrowed with desire above his pouchy cheeks.
“I'll show you how nice it can be, Rebecca. But don't worry, I won't take you faster than you want to go.”
She stood looking down at him, her breath coming fast and ragged. She'd escaped his advances this time, but what about the next time â¦ and the next?
“I'd really rather you didn't come to see me again,” she said. “I don't mean to be rude, but â¦”
For a moment, she thought she had hurt him. It was there, written in his flaccid face. Then it was gone, and he was smiling at her with a sly, knowing grimace.
“I know you've led a sheltered life,” he said as if he hadn't heard her. “But that just makes me like you all the more. It'll be all right, you'll see.”
She turned away, tears of despair stinging her eyes. She didn't want him here, pawing her and trying to win her. She never hadâand now she had Ted she wanted him even less. But with her father on his side, how could she stop him?
A few days later, however, it seemed luck was on her side. Rupert telephoned Alfred at the Co-operative offices to say he had had a spill, and broken his arm.
“I'm sorry to disappoint you, my dear,” Alfred told Rebecca when he came home. “ Rupert doesn't know if he'll be able to get here this week. The motor cycle isn't damaged, fortunately, but of course he can't ride it with his arm in plaster. If he can find someone to chauffeur him though, he promises he won't let you down.”
“I don't really want him to come anyway,” Rebecca said, but her protests fell on deaf ears.
“You don't know what's good for you,” Alfred said.
And Winnie added with a simper, “ He's such a well set-up boy. So handsome!”
Rebecca turned away, fervently hoping her luck would hold and Rupert would be unable to find anyone to bring him. But to her dismay the motor cycle drew up outside two days later as arranged The boy who was riding it she had never seen before, but when Rupert emerged from the side-car, he explained he was Ned Doughty, son of one of the clerks at Rupert's office.
“He's an enthusiast,” he told Alfred. “He's willing to bring me out as long as I let him go off for a spin while I'm here. And of course I'll buy him couple of packets of cigarettes for his trouble.”
“You see how eager Rupert is to visit you, Rebecca?” Alfred said to her. “ Not even a broken arm can keep him away.”
“How did you do it, Rupert?” Winnie asked. “ Fell off your machine, did you? You'll be safer with someone else driving, dear.”
Rupert flushed. “It was just a silly spill, Aunt. One of those things.”
“But at least it means they can't send you off to the war just yet,” Winnie went on, blissfully unaware of the looks both the men were giving her. “That's one blessing, isn't it?”
“I think we should leave the young people to enjoy each other's company, my dear,” Alfred intervened hastily.
Once more Rebecca and Rupert were left alone. But the broken arm had given her an advantage. So long as she kept away from his uninjured arm, he was unable to get his arm around her, and he had to restrict his courting to silky, suggestive remarks.
As the weeks passed and she learned how to manipulate him, her confidence grew. He was so stupid, Rebecca thought, imagining he could win her by paying her compliments and leering at her! Didn't he know how she despised every pompous inch of him, from his slicked-down black hair to his shiny, square shoes? Didn't he realize he was wasting his time, because she would never, ever allow things to progress beyond this stage? And so she took a wry amusement in playing the piano for him and hearing him praise her as if she were a virtuoso, and bringing out her samplers and tapestry for him to admire.
As long as he kept his distance, Rupert was bearable. Once or twice he tried to kiss her, coming up behind her when she sat on the piano stool, encouraging her to face him. The very thought made her shudder, but if she was quick enough she could manage it so that his plastered arm got in the way, and she could slip away with a demure, “Oh, Rupert, your poor arm!”
But of course it couldn't last. And when the day came when the plaster was removed, and he arrived riding his own motor cycle, she knew her respite was over.
It was a Thursday evening, and Alfred was due to preside over a shareholders meeting at the Co-operative rooms. But before he left in his silver-grey motor car, he and Rupert spent a long while alone together in the hall, talking in voices too low for Rebecca to be able to hear what they were saying.
“It might be about your future, Becky,” Winnie said conspiratorily.
Rebecca shuddered, but said nothing. It would be a waste of time to try to make an ally of her mother.
At last they heard the front door close and knew Alfred had left for the meeting.
“You go into the front room with Rupert, dear,” Winnie said. “I shan't disturb you.”
“But, Mother â¦” Rebecca protested.
Winnie only patted her arm and smiled. “ I'm in the kitchen cooking. Don't worry about me.”
“Come on, Becky. You're going to play that new piece for me, aren't you?” Rupert said, appearing in the doorway, and beaming falsely.
I'll have to be firm, she thought. I'll tell him I won't see him any more, and I'll do it now, before he gets any ideas.
As soon as the door closed behind them, she turned to face him, hands clasped in the folds of her skirt, chin up.
“Rupert, there's something I must say to you.”
“Afterwards. Play the piano for me first.” His eyes were running all over her, devouring her, and suddenly she felt uneasy.
“I'd rather say it now,” she said. “I told you once before that I didn't want you coming to see me, and you said, if we gave it time, I'd feel differently. Well, I don't.”
He stood with his back against the door. She had expected him to look hurt, as he had before, and perhaps for a moment he did. But the twist of his mouth was more sly than unhappy, and his eyes had narrowed into a calculating gleam.
“It's early days yet. This arm of mine hasn't helped, but things will be better now, you'll see.”
“You don't understand,” she said with determination. “I don't want you to call on me any more, Rupert.”
“I'm sorry you feel like that,” he said lightly. “ But you'll get over it. If you don't, it won't be much fun for either of us when we're married.”
He came towards her, his hands reaching for hers. Automatically she backed away.
“But I'm not going to marry you, Rupert.”
“Oh yes, you are, my dear. It's all arranged. I've promised your father.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. He was close to her now. She could feel his body warmth and smell the faint odour of sweat. She tried to back away another pace, but her shoulders were pressed against the mantleshelf. “I don't want you, Rupert,” she said desperately.
She didn't see him move, but suddenly she felt his hand on her waist, pulling her towards him until he towered above her.
“But I want you,” he said softly.
Panic rose in her, and she pushed him away. “ How dare you, Rupert!”
His breathing was ragged, and she knew she had angered him.
“Because I'm going to marry you, whatever you may say. It's what your father wantsâ and he's making me his heir.”
“His heir?” she repeated, bewildered. “You mean he's making his will in your favour?”
“I've already had some of it, Becky,” Rupert said with a smile. “So you see, I couldn't back out, even if I wanted to.”
She gazed at him, horror-struck. She had been frightened before. Now she felt betrayed.
“You mean he sold me.”
“Becky, don't be like that! I'd have married you anyway. I've always wanted you, much longer than you realize. Do you remember one Christmas when we played hide-and-seek all over your house? You hid in the linen chest on the landing, and I found you there. You were squashed in amongst the sheets, with your petticoats bunched up and your drawers showing. I knew then that I wanted you.”
He ran his tongue over his lips, reliving the moment, and Rebecca shuddered. “But I was only a little girl then!”
“Oh, how I wanted you!” he went on softly. “I wanted to climb in with you and pull the lid down so no one would know we were there. And I wanted to kiss youâlike this â¦”
Suddenly he pulled her towards him again. She gasped under the pressure of his wet lips, but it was impossible to push him away.
At last he raised his head though he did not release her, looking down at her with his curious light eyes. “ You see how it can be?” he asked triumphantly. “We'll be married soon, Becky, as soon as it can be arranged. And there's another reason, too. If you don't marry me, I'll have to go to war. I've been lucky, so far. This arm of mine held things up. But now it's mended â¦”
Suddenly she found her strength, pushing him away again. She was shaking now, with outrage as well as fear. He had taken her father's money, agreed to marry her against her wishes, and all the time he was using her as an excuse to get out of going to France.
“You don't understand, Becky â¦” Rupert began, but she faced him, her eyes blazing.
“Oh, I understand all right! You're using me! You're nothing but a coward, Rupert!”
“Now wait a minute â¦”
“You filthy coward!” she flung at him.
His surprise gave way to fury; she watched it mottle his face. Fear throbbed through her, but before she could move, his hands were on her arms, gripping them so tightly she cried out.
“A coward, eh? Is that what you think? I'll show you I'm no coward!”
His mouth came down on hers again, braising her lips and making her gasp. Helplessly she struggled, but he was like a great bear, twisting her body against his. Then, with a guttural noise deep in his throat, he lifted her bodily. Her head cracked against the edge of the marble mantleshelf, and her senses swirled. She thought she was falling, and she cried out; then, as his soft, moist hand covered her mouth, she realized she was lying on the floor and he was kneeling astride her.
Her heart was racing now, her terror so acute it almost choked her. His face was close to hers, slobbering, obscene, and she felt his weight come down on her chest. As she opened her mouth to gasp for breath, his tongue thrust deep into it, and she heaved violently. His hands were everywhere, exploring her body and forcing her legs apart, so that her drawers tore like rotten silk. Soundlessly she sobbed, clawing at him with her hands. But there was nothing, nothing but his weight, squeezing the life from her, and his body, hot and hard upon her own.
Just as she thought her lungs would burst, he arched up for a moment, and she gasped wildly. But simultaneously he forced himself deep into her, and her breath came out again in a scream. Pain throbbed through her in waves, burning with a slow fire and reaching a sharp-edged crescendo with each rhythmic thrust of his body. A sob broke in her throat, but she did not struggle any more. She lay like a rag doll, her eyes fixed on the ceiling while shame and blind terror welled up in her, but even when he had finished with her, rolling away without a word, she did not move.
She didn't want to see him, not his plump white body or his sticky, wet skin. That would just make it that much worseâif such a thing were possible.
He pulled himself up, kneeling beside her and looking down at her in a mixture of triumph and fear at what he had done. As the last dregs of his spent passion drained away, so did his bravado.
“You'll have to marry me now,” he said, and when she did not answer, he stood up with an impatient movement, fastening his clothing. “Get dressed, do! You can't lie there like that, half-naked.”