THE SAFETY CURTAIN AND OTHER STORIES
ETHEL M. DELL
The Hundreth Chance Greatheart The Lamp in the Desert The Tidal Wave The Top of the World The Obstacle Race The Way of an Eagle The Knave of Diamonds The Rocks of Valpre The Swindler The Keeper of the Door Bars of Iron Rosa Mundi Etc.
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
This edition is issued under arrangement with the publishers
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London
Made in the United States of America
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
The Safety Curtain
Those Who Wait
The Eleventh Hour
The Place of Honour
The Safety Curtain
A great shout of applause went through the crowded hall as the Dragon-Fly Dance came to an end, and the Dragon-Fly, with quivering, iridescent wings, flashed away.
It was the third encore. The dance was a marvellous one, a piece of dazzling intricacy, of swift and unexpected subtleties, of almost superhuman grace. It must have proved utterly exhausting to any ordinary being; but to that creature of fire and magic it was no more than a glittering fantasy, a whirl too swift for the eye to follow or the brain to grasp.
"Is it a boy or a girl?" asked a man in the front row.
"It's a boy, of course," said his neighbour, shortly.
He was the only member of the audience who did not take part in that third encore. He sat squarely in his seat throughout the uproar, watching the stage with piercing grey eyes that never varied in their stern directness. His brows were drawn above them—thick, straight brows that bespoke a formidable strength of purpose. He was plainly a man who was accustomed to hew his own way through life, despising the trodden paths, overcoming all obstacles by grim persistence.
Louder and louder swelled the tumult. It was evident that nothing but a repetition of the wonder-dance would content the audience. They yelled themselves hoarse for it; and when, light as air, incredibly swift, the green Dragon-Fly darted back, they outdid themselves in the madness of their welcome. The noise seemed to shake the building.
Only the man in the front row with the iron-grey eyes and iron-hard mouth made no movement or sound of any sort. He merely watched with unchanging intentness the face that gleamed, ashen-white, above the shimmering metallic green tights that clothed the dancer's slim body.
The noise ceased as the wild tarantella proceeded. There fell a deep hush, broken only by the silver notes of a flute played somewhere behind the curtain. The dancer's movements were wholly without sound. The quivering, whirling feet scarcely seemed to touch the floor, it was a dance of inspiration, possessing a strange and irresistible fascination, a weird and meteoric rush, that held the onlookers with bated breath.
It lasted for perhaps two minutes, that intense and trancelike stillness; then, like, a stone flung into glassy depths, a woman's scream rudely shattered it, a piercing, terror-stricken scream that brought the rapt audience back to earth with a shock as the liquid music of the flute suddenly ceased.
"Fire!" cried the voice. "Fire! Fire!"
There was an instant of horrified inaction, and in that instant a tongue of flame shot like a fiery serpent through the closed curtains behind the dancer. In a moment the cry was caught up and repeated in a dozen directions, and even as it went from mouth to mouth the safety-curtain began to descend.
The dancer was forgotten, swept as it were from the minds of the audience as an insect whose life was of no account. From the back of the stage came a roar like the roar of an open furnace. A great wave of heat rushed into the hall, and people turned like terrified, stampeding animals and made for the exits.
The Dragon-Fly still stood behind the footlights poised as if for flight, glancing this way and that, shimmering from head to foot in the awful glare that spread behind the descending curtain. It was evident that retreat behind the scenes was impossible, and in another moment or two that falling curtain would cut off the only way left.
But suddenly, before the dancer's hunted eyes, a man leapt forward. He held up his arms, making himself heard in clear command above the dreadful babel behind him.
"Quick!" he cried. "Jump!"
The wild eyes flashed down at him, wavered, and were caught in his compelling gaze. For a single instant—the last—the trembling, glittering figure seemed to hesitate, then like a streak of lightning leapt straight over the footlights into the outstretched arms.
They caught and held with unwavering iron strength. In the midst of a turmoil indescribable the Dragon-Fly hung quivering on the man's breast, the gauze wings shattered in that close, sustaining grip. The safety-curtain came down with a thud, shutting off the horrors behind, and a loud voice yelled through the building assuring the seething crowd of safety.
But panic had set in. The heat was terrific. People fought and struggled to reach the exits.
The dancer turned in the man's arms and raised a deathly face, gripping his shoulders with clinging, convulsive fingers. Two wild dark eyes looked up to his, desperately afraid, seeking reassurance.
He answered that look briefly with stern composure.
"Be still! I shall save you if I can."
The dancer's heart was beating in mad terror against his own, but at his words it seemed to grow a little calmer. Quiveringly the white lips spoke.
"There is a door—close to the stage—a little door—behind a green curtain—if we could reach it."
"Ah!" the man said.
His eyes went to the stage, from the proximity of which the audience had fled affrighted. He espied the curtain.
Only a few people intervened between him and it, and they were struggling to escape in the opposite direction.
"Quick!" gasped the dancer.
He turned, snatched up his great-coat, and wrapped it about the slight, boyish figure. The great dark eyes that shone out of the small white face thanked him for the action. The clinging hands slipped from his shoulders and clasped his arm. Together they faced the fearful heat that raged behind the safety-curtain.
They reached the small door, gasping. It was almost hidden by green drapery. But the dancer was evidently familiar with it. In a moment it was open. A great burst of smoke met them. The man drew back. But a quick hand closed upon his, drawing him on. He went blindly, feeling as if he were stepping into the heart of a furnace, yet strangely determined to go forward whatever came of it.
The smoke and the heat were frightful, suffocating in their intensity. The roar of the unseen flames seemed to fill the world.
The door swung to behind them. They stood in seething darkness.
But again the small clinging hand pulled upon the man.
"Quick!" the dancer cried again.
Choked and gasping, but resolute still, he followed. They ran through a passage that must have been on the very edge of the vortex of flame, for behind them ere they left it a red light glared.
It showed another door in front of them with which the dancer struggled a moment, then flung open. They burst through it together, and the cold night wind met them like an angel of deliverance.
The man gasped and gasped again, filling his parched lungs with its healing freshness. His companion uttered a strange, high laugh, and dragged him forth into the open.
They emerged into a narrow alley, surrounded by tall houses. The night was dark and wet. The rain pattered upon them as they staggered out into a space that seemed deserted. The sudden quiet after the awful turmoil they had just left was like the silence of death.
The man stood still and wiped the sweat in a dazed fashion from his face. The little dancer reeled back against the wall, panting desperately.
For a space neither moved. Then, terribly, the silence was rent by a crash and the roar of flames. An awful redness leapt across the darkness of the night, revealing each to each.
The dancer stood up suddenly and made an odd little gesture of farewell; then, swiftly, to the man's amazement, turned back towards the door through which they had burst but a few seconds before.
He stared for a moment—only a moment—not believing he saw aright, then with a single stride he reached and roughly seized the small, oddly-draped figure.
He heard a faint cry, and there ensued a sharp struggle against his hold; but he pinioned the thin young arms without ceremony, gripping them fast. In the awful, flickering glare above them his eyes shone downwards, dominant, relentless.
"Are you mad?" he said.
The small dark head was shaken vehemently, with gestures curiously suggestive of an imprisoned insect. It was as if wild wings fluttered against captivity.
And then all in a moment the struggling ceased, and in a low, eager voice the captive began to plead.
"Please, please let me go! You don't know—you don't understand. I came—because—because—you called. But I was wrong—I was wrong to come. You couldn't keep me—you wouldn't keep me—against my will!"
"Do you want to die, then?" the man demanded. "Are you tired of life?"
His eyes still shone piercingly down, but they read but little, for the dancer's were firmly closed against them, even while the dark cropped head nodded a strangely vigorous affirmative.
"Yes, that is it! I am so tired—so tired of life! Don't keep me! Let me go—while I have the strength!" The little, white, sharp-featured face, with its tight-shut eyes and childish, quivering mouth, was painfully pathetic. "Death can't be more dreadful than life," the low voice urged. "If I don't go back—I shall be so sorry afterwards. Why should one live—to suffer?"
It was piteously spoken, so piteously that for a moment the man seemed moved to compassion. His hold relaxed; but when the little form between his hands took swift advantage and strained afresh for freedom he instantly tightened his grip.
"No, No!" he said, harshly. "There are other things in life. You don't know what you are doing. You are not responsible."
The dark eyes opened upon him then—wide, reproachful, mysteriously far-seeing. "I shall not be responsible—if you make me live," said the Dragon-Fly, with the air of one risking a final desperate throw.
It was almost an open challenge, and it was accepted instantly, with grim decision. "Very well. The responsibility is mine," the man said briefly. "Come with me!"
His arm encircled the narrow shoulders. He drew his young companion unresisting from the spot. They left the glare of the furnace behind them, and threaded their way through dark and winding alleys back to the throbbing life of the city thoroughfares, back into the whirl and stress of that human existence which both had nearly quitted—and one had strenuously striven to quit—so short a time before.
"My name is Merryon," the man said, curtly. "I am a major in the Indian Army—home on leave. Now tell me about yourself!"
He delivered the information in the brief, aggressive fashion that seemed to be characteristic of him, and he looked over the head of his young visitor as he did so, almost as if he made the statement against his will.
The visitor, still clad in his great-coat, crouched like a dog on the hearthrug before the fire in Merryon's sitting-room, and gazed with wide, unblinking eyes into the flames.
After a few moments Merryon's eyes descended to the dark head and surveyed it critically. The collar of his coat was turned up all round it. It was glistening with rain-drops and looked like the head of some small, furry animal.
As if aware of that straight regard, the dancer presently spoke, without turning or moving an eyelid.
"What you are doesn't matter to any one except yourself. And what I am doesn't matter either. It's just—nobody's business."
"I see," said Merryon.
A faint smile crossed his grim, hard-featured face. He sat down in a low chair near his guest and drew to his side a small table that bore a tray of refreshments. He poured out a glass of wine and held it towards the queer, elfin figure crouched upon his hearth.
The dark eyes suddenly flashed from the fire to his face. "Why do you offer me—that?" the dancer demanded, in a voice that was curiously vibrant, as though it strove to conceal some overwhelming emotion. "Why don't you give me—a man's drink?"
"Because I think this will suit you better," Merryon said; and he spoke with a gentleness that was oddly at variance with the frown that drew his brows.
The dark eyes stared up at him, scared and defiant, for the passage of several seconds; then, very suddenly, the tension went out of the white, pinched face. It screwed up like the face of a hurt child, and all in a moment the little, huddled figure collapsed on the floor at his feet, while sobs—a woman's quivering piteous sobs—filled the silence of the room.
Merryon's own face was a curious mixture of pity and constraint as he set down the glass and stooped forward over the shaking, anguished form.
"Look here, child!" he said, and whatever else was in his voice it certainly held none of the hardness habitual to it. "You're upset—unnerved. Don't cry so! Whatever you've been through, it's over. No one can make you go back. Do you understand? You're free!"
He laid his hand, with the clumsiness of one little accustomed to console, upon the bowed black head.
"Don't!" he said again. "Don't cry so! What the devil does it matter? You're safe enough with me. I'm not the sort of bounder to give you away."
She drew a little nearer to him. "You—you're not a bounder—at all," she assured him between her sobs. "You're just—a gentleman. That's what you are!"
"All right," said Merryon. "Leave off crying!"
He spoke with the same species of awkward kindliness that characterized his actions, and there must have been something strangely comforting in his speech, for the little dancer's tears ceased as abruptly as they had begun. She dashed a trembling hand across her eyes.
"Who's crying?" she said.
He uttered a brief, half-grudging laugh. "That's better. Now drink some wine! Yes, I insist! You must eat something, too. You look half-starved."
She accepted the wine, sitting in an acrobatic attitude on the floor facing him. She drank it, and an odd sparkle of mischief shot up in her great eyes. She surveyed him with an impish expression—much as a grasshopper might survey a toad.
"Are you married?" she inquired, unexpectedly.
"No," said Merryon, shortly. "Why?"
She gave a little laugh that had a catch in it. "I was only thinking that your wife wouldn't like me much. Women are so suspicious."
Merryon turned aside, and began to pour out a drink for himself. There was something strangely elusive about this little creature whom Fortune had flung to him. He wondered what he should do with her. Was she too old for a foundling hospital?
"How old are you?" he asked, abruptly.
She did not answer.
He looked at her, frowning.
"Don't!" she said. "It's ugly. I'm not quite forty. How old are you?"
"What?" said Merryon.
"Not—quite—forty," she said again, with extreme distinctness. "I'm small for my age, I know. But I shall never grow any more now. How old did you say you were?"
Merryon's eyes regarded her piercingly. "I should like the truth," he said, in his short, grim way.
She made a grimace that turned into an impish smile. "Then you must stick to the things that matter," she said. "That is—nobody's business."
He tried to look severe, but very curiously failed. He picked up a plate of sandwiches to mask a momentary confusion, and offered it to her.
Again, with simplicity, she accepted, and there fell a silence between them while she ate, her eyes again upon the fire. Her face, in repose, was the saddest thing he had ever seen. More than ever did she make him think of a child that had been hurt.
She finished her sandwich and sat for a while lost in thought. Merryon leaned back in his chair, watching her. The little, pointed features possessed no beauty, yet they had that which drew the attention irresistibly. The delicate charm of her dancing was somehow expressed in every line. There was fire, too,—a strange, bewitching fire,—behind the thick black lashes.
Very suddenly that fire was turned upon him again. With a swift, darting movement she knelt up in front of him, her clasped hands on his knees.
"Why did you save me just now?" she said. "Why wouldn't you let me die?"
He looked full at her. She vibrated like a winged creature on the verge of taking flight. But her eyes—her eyes sought his with a strange assurance, as though they saw in him a comrade.
"Why did you make me live when I wanted to die?" she insisted. "Is life so desirable? Have you found it so?"
His brows contracted at the last question, even while his mouth curved cynically. "Some people find it so," he said.
"But you?" she said, and there was almost accusation in her voice, "Have the gods been kind to you? Or have they thrown you the dregs—just the dregs?"
The passionate note in the words, subdued though it was, was not to be mistaken. It stirred him oddly, making him see her for the first time as a woman rather than as the fantastic being, half-elf, half-child, whom he had wrested from the very jaws of Death against her will. He leaned slowly forward, marking the deep, deep shadows about her eyes, the vivid red of her lips.
"What do you know about the dregs?" he said.
She beat her hands with a small, fierce movement on his knees, mutely refusing to answer.
"Ah, well," he said, "I don't know why I should answer either. But I will. Yes, I've had dregs—dregs—and nothing but dregs for the last fifteen years."
He spoke with a bitterness that he scarcely attempted to restrain, and the girl at his feet nodded—a wise little feminine nod.
"I knew you had. It comes harder to a man, doesn't it?"
"I don't know why it should," said Merryon, moodily.
"I do," said the Dragon-Fly. "It's because men were made to boss creation. See? You're one of the bosses, you are. You've been led to expect a lot, and because you haven't had it you feel you've been cheated. Life is like that. It's just a thing that mocks at you. I know."
She nodded again, and an odd, will-o'-the-wisp smile flitted over her face.
"You seem to know—something of life," the man said.
She uttered a queer choking laugh. "Life is a big, big swindle," she said. "The only happy people in the world are those who haven't found it out. But you—you say there are other things in life besides suffering. How did you know that if—if you've never had anything but dregs?"
"Ah!" Merryon said. "You have me there."
He was still looking full into those shadowy eyes with a curious, dawning fellowship in his own.
"You have me there," he repeated. "But I do know. I was happy enough once, till—" He stopped.
"Things went wrong?" insinuated the Dragon-Fly, sitting down on her heels in a childish attitude of attention.
"Yes," Merryon admitted, in his sullen fashion. "Things went wrong. I found I was the son of a thief. He's dead now, thank Heaven. But he dragged me under first. I've been at odds with life ever since."
"But a man can start again," said the Dragon-Fly, with her air of worldly wisdom.
"Oh, yes, I did that." Merryon's smile was one of exceeding bitterness. "I enlisted and went to South Africa. I hoped for death, and I won a commission instead."
The girl's eyes shone with interest. "But that was luck!" she said.
"Oh, yes; it was luck of a sort—the damnable, unsatisfactory sort. I entered the Indian Army, and I've got on. But socially I'm practically an outcast. They're polite to me, but they leave me outside. The man who rose from the ranks—the fellow with a shady past—fought shy of by the women, just tolerated by the men, covertly despised by the youngsters—that's the sort of person I am. It galled me once. I'm used to it now."
Merryon's grim voice went into grimmer silence. He was staring sombrely into the fire, almost as if he had forgotten his companion.
There fell a pause; then, "You poor dear!" said the Dragon-Fly, sympathetically. "But I expect you are like that, you know. I expect it's a bit your own fault."
He looked at her in surprise.
"No, I'm not meaning anything nasty," she assured him, with that quick smile of hers whose sweetness he was just beginning to realize. "But after a bad knockout like yours a man naturally looks for trouble. He gets suspicious, and a snub or two does the rest. He isn't taking any more. It's a pity you're not married. A woman would have known how to hold her own, and a bit over—for you."
"I wouldn't ask any woman to share the life I lead," said Merryon, with bitter emphasis. "Not that any woman would if I did. I'm not a ladies' man."
She laughed for the first time, and he started at the sound, for it was one of pure, girlish merriment.
"My! You are modest!" she said. "And yet you don't look it, somehow." She turned her right-hand palm upwards on his knee, tacitly inviting his. "You're a good one to talk of life being worth while, aren't you?" she said.
He accepted the frank invitation, faintly smiling. "Well, I know the good things are there," he said, "though I've missed them."
"You'll marry and be happy yet," she said, with confidence. "But I shouldn't put it off too long if I were you."
He shook his head. His hand still half-consciously grasped hers. "Ask a woman to marry the son of one of the most famous swindlers ever known? I think not," he said. "Why, even you—" His eyes regarded her, comprehended her. He stopped abruptly.
"What about me?" she said.
He hesitated, possessed by an odd embarrassment. The dark eyes were lifted quite openly to his. It came to him that they were accustomed to the stare of multitudes—they met his look so serenely, so impenetrably.
"I don't know how we got on to the subject of my affairs," he said, after a moment. "It seems to me that yours are the most important just now. Aren't you going to tell me anything about them?"
She gave a small, emphatic shake of the head. "I should have been dead by this time if you hadn't interfered," she said. "I haven't got any affairs."
"Then it's up to me to look after you," Merryon said, quietly.
But she shook her head at that more vigorously still. "You look after me!" Her voice trembled on a note of derision. "Sure, you're joking!" she protested. "I've looked after myself ever since I was eight."
"And made a success of it?" Merryon asked.
Her eyes shot swift defiance. "That's nobody's business but my own," she said. "You know what I think of life."
Merryon's hand closed slowly upon hers. "There seems to be a pair of us," he said. "You can't refuse to let me help you—for fellowship's sake."
The red lips trembled suddenly. The dark eyes fell before his for the first time. She spoke almost under her breath. "I'm too old—to take help from a man—like that."
He bent slightly towards her. "What has age to do with it?"
"Everything." Her eyes remained downcast; the hand he held was trying to wriggle free, but he would not suffer it.
"Circumstances alter cases," he said. "I accepted the responsibility when I saved you."
"But you haven't the least idea what to do with me," said the Dragon-Fly, with a forlorn smile. "You ought to have thought of that. You'll be going back to India soon. And I—and I—" She stopped, still stubbornly refusing to meet the man's eyes.
"I am going back next week," Merryon said.
"How fine to be you!" said the Dragon-Fly. "You wouldn't like to take me with you now as—as valet de chambre?"
He raised his brows momentarily. Then: "Would you come?" he asked, with a certain roughness, as though he suspected her of trifling.
She raised her eyes suddenly, kindled and eager. "Would I come!" she said, in a tone that said more than words.
"You would?" he said, and laid an abrupt hand on her shoulder. "You would, eh?"
She knelt up swiftly, the coat that enveloped her falling back, displaying the slim, boyish figure, the active, supple limbs. Her breathing came through parted lips.
"As your—your servant—your valet?" she panted.
His rough brows drew together. "My what? Good heavens, no! I could only take you in one capacity."
She started back from his hand. For a moment sheer horror looked out from her eyes. Then, almost in the same instant, they were veiled. She caught her breath, saying no word, only dumbly waiting.
"I could only take you as my wife," he said, still in that half-bantering, half-embarrassed fashion of his. "Will you come?"
She threw back her head and stared at him. "Marry you! What, really? Really?" she questioned, breathlessly.
"Merely for appearances' sake," said Merryon, with grim irony. "The regimental morals are somewhat easily offended, and an outsider like myself can't be too careful."
The girl was still staring at him, as though at some novel specimen of humanity that had never before crossed her path. Suddenly she leaned towards him, looking him full and straight in the eyes.
"What would you do if I said 'Yes'?" she questioned, in a small, tense whisper.
He looked back at her, half-interested, half amused. "Do, urchin? Why, marry you!" he said.
"Really marry me?" she urged. "Not make-believe?"
He stiffened at that. "Do you know what you're saying?" he demanded, sternly.
She sprang to her feet with a wild, startled movement; then, as he remained seated, paused, looking down at him sideways, half-doubtful, half-confiding. "But you can't be in earnest!" she said.
"I am in earnest." He raised his face to her with a certain doggedness, as though challenging her to detect in it aught but honesty. "I may be several kinds of a fool," he said, "but I am in earnest. I'm no great catch, but I'll marry you if you'll have me. I'll protect you, and I'll be good to you. I can't promise to make you happy, of course, but—anyway, I shan't make you miserable."
"But—but—" She still stood before him as though hovering on the edge of flight. Her lips were trembling, her whole form quivering and scintillating in the lamplight. She halted on the words as if uncertain how to proceed.
"What is it?" said Merryon.
And then, quite suddenly, his mood softened. He leaned slowly forward.
"You needn't be afraid of me," he said. "I'm not a heady youngster. I shan't gobble you up."
She laughed at that—a quick, nervous laugh. "And you won't beat me either? Promise!"
He frowned at her. "Beat you! I?"
She nodded several times, faintly smiling. "Yes, you, Mr. Monster! I'm sure you could."
He smiled also, somewhat grimly. "You're wrong, madam. I couldn't beat a child."
"Oh, my!" she said, and threw up her arms with a quivering laugh, dropping his coat in a heap on the floor. "How old do you think this child is?" she questioned, glancing down at him in her sidelong, speculative fashion.
He looked at her hard and straight, looked at the slim young body in its sheath of iridescent green that shimmered with every breath she drew, and very suddenly he rose.
She made a spring backwards, but she was too late. He caught and held her.
"Let me go!" she cried, her face crimson.
"But why?" Merryon's voice fell curt and direct. He held her firmly by the shoulders.
She struggled against him fiercely for a moment, then became suddenly still. "You're not a brute, are you?" she questioned, breathlessly. "You—you'll be good to me? You said so!"
He surveyed her grimly. "Yes, I will be good to you," he said. "But I'm not going to be fooled. Understand? If you marry me, you must play the part. I don't know how old you are. I don't greatly care. All I do care about is that you behave yourself as the wife of a man in my position should. You're old enough to know what that means, I suppose?"
He spoke impressively, but the effect of his words was not quite what he expected. The point of a very red tongue came suddenly from between the red lips, and instantly disappeared.
"That all?" she said. "Oh yes; I think I can do that. I'll try, anyway. And if you're not satisfied—well, you'll have to let me know. See?
Now let me go, there's a good man! I don't like the feel of your hands."
He let her go in answer to the pleading of her eyes, and she slipped from his grasp like an eel, caught up the coat at her feet, and wriggled into it.
Then, impishly, she faced him, buttoning it with nimble fingers the while. "This is the garment of respectability," she declared. "It isn't much of a fit, is it? But I shall grow to it in time. Do you know, I believe I'm going to like being your wife?"
"Why?" said Merryon.
She laughed—that laugh of irrepressible gaiety that had surprised him before.
"Oh, just because I shall so love fighting your battles for you," she said. "It'll be grand sport."
"Think so?" said Merryon.
"Oh, you bet!" said the Dragon-Fly, with gay confidence. "Men never know how to fight. They're poor things—men!"
He himself laughed at that—his grim, grudging laugh. "It's a world of fools, Puck," he said.
"Or knaves," said the Dragon-Fly, wisely. And with that she stretched up her arms above her head and laughed again. "Now I know what it feels like," she said, "to have risen from the dead."
There came the flash of green wings in the cypresses and a raucous scream of jubilation as the boldest parakeet in the compound flew off with the choicest sweetmeat on the tiffin-table in the veranda. There were always sweets at tiffin in the major's bungalow. Mrs. Merryon loved sweets. She was wont to say that they were the best remedy for homesickness she knew.
Not that she ever was homesick. At least, no one ever suspected such a possibility, for she had a smile and a quip for all, and her laughter was the gayest in the station. She ran out now, half-dressed, from her bedroom, waving a towel at the marauder.
"That comes of being kind-hearted," she declared, in the deep voice that accorded so curiously with the frothy lightness of her personality. "Everyone takes advantage of it, sure."
Her eyes were grey and Irish, and they flashed over the scene dramatically, albeit there was no one to see and admire. For she was strangely captivating, and perhaps it was hardly to be expected that she should be quite unconscious of the fact.
"Much too taking to be good, dear," had been the verdict of the Commissioner's wife when she had first seen little Puck Merryon, the major's bride.
But then the Commissioner's wife, Mrs. Paget, was so severely plain in every way that perhaps she could scarcely be regarded as an impartial judge. She had never flirted with any one, and could not know the joys thereof.
Young Mrs. Merryon, on the other hand, flirted quite openly and very sweetly with every man she met. It was obviously her nature so to do. She had doubtless done it from her cradle, and would probably continue the practice to her grave.
"A born wheedler," the colonel called her; but his wife thought "saucy minx" a more appropriate term, and wondered how Major Merryon could put up with her shameless trifling.
As a matter of fact, Merryon wondered himself sometimes; for she flirted with him more than all in that charming, provocative way of hers, coaxed him, laughed at him, brilliantly eluded him. She would perch daintily on the arm of his chair when he was busy, but if he so much as laid a hand upon her she was gone in a flash like a whirling insect, not to return till he was too absorbed to pay any attention to her. And often as those daring red lips mocked him, they were never offered to his even in jest. Yet was she so finished a coquette that the omission was never obvious. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that she should evade all approach to intimacy. They were comrades—just comrades.
Everyone in the station wanted to know Merryon's bride. People had begun by being distant, but that phase was long past. Puck Merryon had stormed the citadel within a fortnight of her arrival, no one quite knew how. Everyone knew her now. She went everywhere, though never without her husband, who found himself dragged into gaieties for which he had scant liking, and sought after by people who had never seemed aware of him before. She had, in short, become the rage, and so gaily did she revel in her triumph that he could not bring himself to deny her the fruits thereof.
On that particular morning in March he had gone to an early parade without seeing her, for there had been a regimental ball the night before, and she had danced every dance. Dancing seemed her one passion, and to Merryon, who did not dance, the ball had been an unmitigated weariness. He had at last, in sheer boredom, joined a party of bridge-players, with the result that he had not seen much of his young wife throughout the evening.
Returning from the parade-ground, he wondered if he would find her up, and then caught sight of her waving away the marauders in scanty attire on the veranda.
He called a greeting to her, and she instantly vanished into her room. He made his way to the table set in the shade of the cluster-roses, and sat down to await her.
She remained invisible, but her voice at once accosted him. "Good-morning, Billikins! Tell the khit you're ready! I shall be out in two shakes."
None but she would have dreamed of bestowing so frivolous an appellation upon the sober Merryon. But from her it came so naturally that Merryon scarcely noticed it. He had been "Billikins" to her throughout the brief three months that had elapsed since their marriage. Of course, Mrs. Paget disapproved, but then Mrs. Paget was Mrs. Paget. She disapproved of everything young and gay.
Merryon gave the required order, and then sat in stolid patience to await his wife's coming. She did not keep him long. Very soon she came lightly out and joined him, an impudent smile on her sallow little face, dancing merriment in her eyes.
"Oh, poor old Billikins!" she said, commiseratingly. "You were bored last night, weren't you? I wonder if I could teach you to dance."
"I wonder," said Merryon.
His eyes dwelt upon her in her fresh white muslin. What a child she looked! Not pretty—no, not pretty; but what a magic smile she had!
She sat down at the table facing him, and leaned her elbows upon it. "I wonder if I could!" she said again, and then broke into her sudden laugh.
"What's the joke?" asked Merryon.
"Oh, nothing!" she said, recovering herself. "It suddenly came over me, that's all—poor old Mother Paget's face, supposing she had seen me last night."
"Didn't she see you last night? I thought you were more or less in the public eye," said Merryon.
"Oh, I meant after the dance," she explained. "I felt sort of wound up and excited after I got back. And I wanted to see if I could still do it. I'm glad to say I can," she ended, with another little laugh.
Her dark eyes shot him a tentative glance. "Can what?" asked Merryon.
"You'll be shocked if I tell you."
"What was it?" he said.
There was insistence in his tone—the insistence by which he had once compelled her to live against her will. Her eyelids fluttered a little as it reached her, but she cocked her small, pointed chin notwithstanding.
"Why should I tell you if I don't want to?" she demanded.
"Why shouldn't you want to?" he said.
The tip of her tongue shot out and in again. "Well, you never took me for a lady, did you?" she said, half-defiantly.
"What was it?" repeated Merryon, sticking to the point.
Again she grimaced at him, but she answered, "Oh, I only—after I'd had my bath—lay on the floor and ran round my head for a bit. It's not a bit difficult, once you've got the knack. But I got thinking of Mrs. Paget—she does amuse me, that woman. Only yesterday she asked me what Puck was short for, and I told her Elizabeth—and then I got laughing so that I had to stop."
Her face was flushed, and she was slightly breathless as she ended, but she stared across the table with brazen determination, like a naughty child expecting a slap.
Merryon's face, however, betrayed neither astonishment nor disapproval. He even smiled a little as he said, "Perhaps you would like to give me lessons in that also? I've often wondered how it was done."
She smiled back at him with instant and obvious relief.
"No, I shan't do it again. It's not proper. But I will teach you to dance. I'd sooner dance with you than any of 'em."
It was naively spoken, so naively that Merryon's faint smile turned into something that was almost genial. What a youngster she was! Her freshness was a perpetual source of wonder to him when he remembered whence she had come to him.
"I am quite willing to be taught," he said. "But it must be in strict privacy."
She nodded gaily.
"Of course. You shall have a lesson to-night—when we get back from the Burtons' dinner. I'm real sorry you were bored, Billikins. You shan't be again."
That was her attitude always, half-maternal, half-quizzing, as if something about him amused her; yet always anxious to please him, always ready to set his wishes before her own, so long as he did not attempt to treat her seriously. She had left all that was serious in that other life that had ended with the fall of the safety-curtain on a certain night in England many aeons ago. Her personality now was light as gossamer, irresponsible as thistledown. The deeper things of life passed her by. She seemed wholly unaware of them.
"You'll be quite an accomplished dancer by the time everyone comes back from the Hills," she remarked, balancing a fork on one slender brown finger. "We'll have a ball for two—every night."
"We!" said Merryon.
She glanced at him.
"I said 'we.'"
"I know you did." The man's voice had suddenly a dogged ring; he looked across at the vivid, piquant face with the suggestion of a frown between his eyes.
"Don't do that!" she said, lightly. "Never do that, Billikins! It's most unbecoming behaviour. What's the matter?"
"The matter?" he said, slowly. "The matter is that you are going to the Hills for the hot weather with the rest of the women, Puck. I can't keep you here."
She made a rude face at him.
"Preserve me from any cattery in the Hills!" she said. "I'm going to stay with you."
"You can't," said Merryon.
"I can," she said.
He frowned still more.
"Not if I say otherwise, Puck."
She snapped her fingers at him and laughed.
"I am in earnest," Merryon said. "I can't keep you here for the hot weather. It would probably kill you."
"What of that?" she said.
He ignored her frivolity.
"It can't be done," he said. "So you must make the best of it."
"Meaning you don't want me?" she demanded, unexpectedly.
"Not for the hot weather," said Merryon.
She sprang suddenly to her feet.
"I won't go, Billikins!" she declared, fiercely, "I just won't!"
He looked at her, sternly resolute.
"You must go," he said, with unwavering decision.
"You're tired of me! Is that it?" she demanded.
He raised his brows. "You haven't given me much opportunity to be that, have you?" he said.
A great wave of colour went over her face. She put up her hand as though instinctively to shield it.
"I've done my best to—to—to—" She stopped, became piteously silent, and suddenly he saw that she was crying behind the sheltering hand.
He softened almost in spite of himself.
"Come here, Puck!" he said.
She shook her head dumbly.
"Come here!" he repeated.
She came towards him slowly, as if against her will. He reached forward, still seated, and drew her to him.
She trembled at his touch, trembled and started away, yet in the end she yielded.
"Please," she whispered; "please!"
He put his arm round her very gently, yet with determination, making her stand beside him.
"Why don't you want to go to the Hills?" he said.
"I'd be frightened," she murmured.
"I don't know," she said, vaguely.
"Yes, but you do know. You must know.
Tell me." He spoke gently, but the stubborn note was in his voice and his hold was insistent. "Leave off crying and tell me!"
"I'm not crying," said Puck.
She uncovered her face and looked down at him through tears with a faintly mischievous smile.
"Tell me!" he reiterated. "Is it because you don't like the idea of leaving me?"
Her smile flashed full out upon him on the instant.
"Goodness, no! Whatever made you think that?" she demanded, briskly.
He was momentarily disconcerted, but he recovered himself at once.
"Then what is your objection to going?" he asked.
She turned and sat down conversationally on the corner of the table.
"Well, you know, Billikins, it's like this. When I married you—I did it out of pity. See? I was sorry for you. You seemed such a poor, helpless sort of creature. And I thought being married to me might help to improve your position a bit. You see my point, Billikins?"
"Oh, quite," he said. "Please go on!"
She went on, with butterfly gaiety.
"I worked hard—really hard—to get you out of your bog. It was a horrid deep one, wasn't it, Billikins? My! You were floundering! But I've pulled you out of it and dragged you up the bank a bit. You don't get sniffed at anything like you used, do you, Billikins? But I daren't leave you yet—I honestly daren't. You'd slip right back again directly my back was turned. And I should have the pleasure of starting the business all over again. I couldn't face it, my dear. It would be too disheartening."
"I see," said Merryon. There was just the suspicion of a smile among the rugged lines of his face. "Yes, I see your point. But I can show you another if you'll listen."
He was holding her two hands as she sat, as though he feared an attempt to escape. For though Puck sat quite still, it was with the stillness of a trapped creature that waits upon opportunity.
"Will you listen?" he said.
It was not an encouraging nod, but he proceeded.
"All the women go to the Hills for the hot weather. It's unspeakable here. No white woman could stand it. And we men get leave by turns to join them. There is nothing doing down here, no social round whatever. It's just stark duty. I can't lose much social status that way. It will serve my turn much better if you go up with the other women and continue to hold your own there. Not that I care a rap," he added, with masculine tactlessness. "I am no longer susceptible to snubs."
"Then I shan't go," she said at once, beginning to swing a restless foot.
"Yes, but you will go," he said. "I wish it."
"You want to get rid of me," said Puck, looking over his head with the eyes of a troubled child.
Merryon was silent. He was watching her with a kind of speculative curiosity. His hands were still locked upon hers.
Slowly her eyes came down to his.
"Billikins," she said, "let me stay down for a little!" Her lips were quivering. She kicked his chair agitatedly. "I don't want to go," she said, dismally. "Let me stay—anyhow—till I get ill!"
"No," Merryon said. "It can't be done, child. I can't risk that. Besides, there'd be no one to look after you."
She slipped to her feet in a flare of indignation. "You're a pig, Billikins! You're a pig!" she cried, and tore her hands free. "I've a good mind to run away from you and never come back. It's what you deserve, and what you'll get, if you aren't careful!"
She was gone with the words—gone like a flashing insect disturbing the silence for a moment, and leaving a deeper silence behind.
Merryon looked after her for a second or two, and then philosophically continued his meal. But the slight frown remained between his brows. The veranda seemed empty and colourless now that she was gone.
The Burtons' dinner-party was a very cheerful affair. The Burtons were young and newly married, and they liked to gather round them all the youth and gaiety of the station. It was for that reason that Puck's presence had been secured, for she was the life of every gathering; and her husband had been included in the invitation simply and solely because from the very outset she had refused to go anywhere without him. It was the only item of her behaviour of which worthy Mrs. Paget could conscientiously approve.
As a matter of fact Merryon had not the smallest desire to go, but he would not say so; and all through the evening he sat and watched his young wife with a curious hunger at his heart. He hated to think that he had hurt her.
There was no sign of depression about Puck, however, and he alone noticed that she never once glanced in his direction. She kept everyone up to a pitch of frivolity that certainly none would have attained without her, and an odd feeling began to stir in Merryon, a sensation of jealousy such as he had never before experienced. They seemed to forget, all of them, that this flashing, brilliant creature was his.
She seemed to have forgotten it also. Or was it only that deep-seated, inimitable coquetry of hers that prompted her thus to ignore him?
He could not decide; but throughout the evening the determination grew in him to make this one point clear to her. Trifle as she might, she must be made to understand that she belonged to him, and him alone. Comrades they might be, but he held a vested right in her, whether he chose to assert it or not.
They returned at length to their little gimcrack bungalow—the Match-box, as Puck called it—on foot under a blaze of stars. The distance was not great, and Puck despised rickshaws.
She flitted by his side in her airy way, chatting inconsequently, not troubling about response, as elusive as a fairy and—the man felt it in the rising fever of his veins—as maddeningly attractive.
They reached the bungalow. She went up the steps to the rose-twined veranda as though she floated on wings of gossamer. "The roses are all asleep, Billikins," she said. "They look like alabaster, don't they?"
She caught a cluster to her and held it against her cheek for a moment.
Merryon was close behind her. She seemed to realize his nearness quite suddenly, for she let the flowers go abruptly and flitted on.
He followed her till, at the farther end of the veranda, she turned and faced him. "Good-night, Billikins," she said, lightly.
"What about that dancing-lesson?" he said.
She threw up her arms above her head with a curious gesture. They gleamed transparently white in the starlight. Her eyes shone like fire-flies.
"I thought you preferred dancing by yourself," she retorted.
"Why?" he said.
She laughed a soft, provocative laugh, and suddenly, without any warning, the cloak had fallen from her shoulders and she was dancing. There in the starlight, white-robed and wonderful, she danced as, it seemed to the man's fascinated senses, no human had ever danced before. She was like a white flame—a darting, fiery essence, soundless, all-absorbing, all-entrancing.
He watched her with pent breath, bound by the magic of her, caught, as it were, into the innermost circle of her being, burning in answer to her fire, yet so curiously enthralled as to be scarcely aware of the ever-mounting, ever-spreading heat. She was like a mocking spirit, a will-o'-the-wisp, luring him, luring him—whither?
The dance quickened, became a passionate whirl, so that suddenly he seemed to see a bright-winged insect caught in an endless web and battling for freedom. He almost saw the silvery strands of that web floating like gossamer in the starlight.
And then, with well-nigh miraculous suddenness, the struggle was over and the insect had darted free. He saw her flash away, and found the veranda empty.
Her cloak lay at his feet. He stooped with an odd sense of giddiness and picked it up. A fragrance of roses came to him with the touch of it, and for an instant he caught it up to his face. The sweetness seemed to intoxicate him.
There came a light, inconsequent laugh; sharply he turned. She had opened the window of his smoking-den and was standing in the entrance with impudent merriment in her eyes. There was triumph also in her pose—a triumph that sent a swirl of hot passion through him. He flung aside the cloak and strode towards her.
But she was gone on the instant, gone with a tinkle of maddening laughter. He blundered into the darkness of an empty room. But he was not the man to suffer defeat tamely. Momentarily baffled, he paused to light a lamp; then went from room to room of the little bungalow, locking each door that she might not elude him a second time. His blood was on fire, and he meant to find her.
In the end he came upon her wholly unexpectedly, standing on the veranda amongst the twining roses. She seemed to be awaiting him, though she made no movement towards him as he approached.
"Good-night, Billikins," she said, her voice very small and humble.
He came to her without haste, realizing that she had given the game into his hands. She did not shrink from him, but she raised an appealing face. And oddly the man's heart smote him. She looked so pathetically small and childish standing there.
But the blood was still running fiercely in his veins, and that momentary twinge did not cool him. Child she might be, but she had played with fire, and she alone was responsible for the conflagration that she had started.
He drew near to her; he took her, unresisting, into his arms.
She cowered down, hiding her face away from him. "Don't, Billikins! Please—please, Billikins!" she begged, incoherently. "You promised—you promised—"
"What did I promise?" he said.
"That you wouldn't—wouldn't"—she spoke breathlessly, for his hold was tightening upon her—"gobble me up," she ended, with a painful little laugh.
"I see." Merryon's voice was deep and low. "And you meantime are at liberty to play any fool game you like with me. Is that it?"
She was quivering from head to foot. She did not lift her face. "It wasn't—a fool game," she protested. "I did it because—because—you were so horrid this morning, so—so cold-blooded. And I—and I—wanted to see if—I could make you care."
"Make me care!" Merryon said the words over oddly to himself; and then, still fast holding her, he began to feel for the face that was so strenuously hidden from him.
She resisted him desperately. "Let me go!" she begged, piteously. "I'll be so good, Billikins. I'll go to the Hills. I'll do anything you like. Only let me go now! Billikins!"
She cried out sharply, for he had overcome her resistance by quiet force, had turned her white face up to his own.
"I am not cold-blooded to-night, Puck," he said. "Whatever you are—child or woman—gutter-snipe or angel—you are mine, all mine. And—I want you!"
The deep note vibrated in his voice; he stooped over her.
But she flung herself back over his arm, striving desperately to avoid him. "No—no—no!" she cried, wildly. "You mustn't, Billikins! Don't kiss me! Don't kiss me!"
She threw up a desperate hand, covering his mouth. "Don't—oh, don't!" she entreated, brokenly.
But the fire she had kindled she was powerless to quench. He would not be frustrated. He caught her hand away. He held her to his heart. He kissed the red lips hotly, with the savage freedom of a nature long restrained.
"Who has a greater right?" he said, with fiery exultation.
She did not answer him. But at the first touch of his lips upon her own she resisted no longer, only broke into agonized tears.
And suddenly Merryon came to himself—was furiously, overwhelmingly ashamed.
"God forgive me!" he said, and let her go.
She tottered a little, covering her face with her hands, sobbing like a hurt child. But she did not try to run away.
He flung round upon his heel and paced the veranda in fierce discomfort. Beast that he was—brute beast to have hurt her so! That piteous sobbing was more than he could bear.
Suddenly he turned back to her, came and stood beside her. "Puck—Puck, child!" he said.
His voice was soft and very urgent. He touched the bent, dark head with a hesitating caress.
She started away from him with a gasp of dismay; but he checked her.
"No, don't!" he said. "It's all right, dear. I'm not such a brute as I seem. Don't be afraid of me!"
There was more of pleading in his voice than he knew. She raised her head suddenly, and looked at him as if puzzled.
He pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed her wet cheeks with clumsy tenderness. "It's all right," he said again. "Don't cry! I hate to see you cry."
She gazed at him, still doubtful, still sobbing a little. "Oh, Billikins!" she said, tremulously, "why did you?"
"I don't know," he said. "I was mad. It was your own fault, in a way. You don't seem to realize that I'm as human as the rest of the world. But I don't defend myself. I was an infernal brute to let myself go like that."
"Oh, no, you weren't, Billikins!" Quite unexpectedly she answered him. "You couldn't help it. Men are like that. And I'm glad you're human. But—but"—she faltered a little—"I want to feel that you're safe, too. I've always felt—ever since I jumped into your arms that night—that you—that you were on the right side of the safety-curtain. You are, aren't you? Oh, please say you are! But I know you are." She held out her hands to him with a quivering gesture of confidence. "If you'll forgive me for—for fooling you," she said, "I'll forgive you—for being fooled. That's a fair offer, isn't it? Don't let's think any more about it!" Her rainbow smile transformed her face, but her eyes sought his anxiously.
He took the hands, but he did not attempt to draw her nearer. "Puck!" he said.
"What is it?" she whispered, trembling.
"Don't!" he said. "I won't hurt you. I wouldn't hurt a hair of your head. But, child, wouldn't it be safer—easier for both of us—if—if we lived together, instead of apart?"
He spoke almost under his breath. There was no hint of mastery about him at that moment, only a gentleness that pleaded with her as with a frightened child.
And Puck went nearer to him on the instant, as it were instinctively, almost involuntarily. "P'r'aps some day, Billikins!" she said, with a little, quivering laugh. "But not yet—not if I've got to go to the Hills away from you."
"When I follow you to the Hills, then," he said.
She freed one hand and, reaching up, lightly stroked his cheek. "P'r'aps, Billikins!" she said again. "But—you'll have to be awfully patient with me, because—because—" She paused, agitatedly; then went yet a little nearer to him. "You will be kind to me, won't you?" she pleaded.
He put his arm about her. "Always, dear," he said.
She raised her face. She was still trembling, but her action was one of resolute confidence. "Then let's be friends, Billikins!" she said.
It was a tacit invitation. He bent and gravely kissed her.
Her lips returned his kiss shyly, quiveringly. "You're the nicest man I ever met, Billikins," she said. "Good-night!"
She slipped from his encircling arm and was gone.
The man stood motionless where she had left him, wondering at himself, at her, at the whole rocking universe. She had kindled the Magic Fire in him indeed! His whole being was aglow. And yet—and yet—she had had her way with him. He had let her go.
Wherefore? Wherefore? The hot blood dinned in his ears. His hands clenched. And from very deep within him the answer came. Because he loved her.
Summer in the Plains! Pitiless, burning summer!
All day a blinding blaze of sun beat upon the wooden roof, forced a way through the shaded windows, lay like a blasting spell upon the parched compound. The cluster-roses had shrivelled and died long since. Their brown leaves still clung to the veranda and rattled desolately with a dry, scaly sound in the burning wind of dawn.
The green parakeets had ceased to look for sweets on the veranda. Nothing dainty ever made its appearance there. The Englishman who came and went with such grim endurance offered them no temptations.
Sometimes he spent the night on a charpoy on the veranda, lying motionless, though often sleepless, through the breathless, dragging hours. There had been sickness among the officers and Merryon, who was never sick, was doing the work of three men. He did it doggedly, with the stubborn determination characteristic of him; not cheerfully—no one ever accused Merryon of being cheerful—but efficiently and uncomplainingly. Other men cursed the heat, but he never took the trouble. He needed all his energies for what he had to do.
His own chance of leave had become very remote. There was so much sick leave that he could not be spared. Over that, also, he made no complaint. It was useless to grumble at the inevitable. There was not a man in the mess who could not be spared more easily than he.
For he was indomitable, unfailing, always fulfilling his duties with machine-like regularity, stern, impenetrable, hard as granite.
As to what lay behind that hardness, no one ever troubled to inquire. They took him for granted, much as if he had been a well-oiled engine guaranteed to surmount all obstacles. How he did it was nobody's business but his own. If he suffered in that appalling heat as other men suffered, no one knew of it. If he grew a little grimmer and a little gaunter, no one noticed. Everyone knew that whatever happened to others, he at least would hold on. Everyone described him as "hard as nails."
Each day seemed more intolerable than the last, each night a perceptible narrowing of the fiery circle in which they lived. They seemed to be drawing towards a culminating horror that grew hourly more palpable, more monstrously menacing—a horror that drained their strength even from afar.
"It's going to kill us this time," declared little Robey, the youngest subaltern, to whom the nights were a torment unspeakable. He had been within an ace of heat apoplexy more than once, and his nerves were stretched almost to breaking-point.
But Merryon went doggedly on, hewing his unswerving way through all. The monsoon was drawing near, and the whole tortured earth seemed to be waiting in dumb expectation.
Night after night a glassy moon came up, shining, immense and awful, through a thick haze of heat. Night after night Merryon lay on his veranda, smoking his pipe in stark endurance while the dreadful hours crept by. Sometimes he held a letter from his wife hard clenched in one powerful hand. She wrote to him frequently—short, airy epistles, wholly inconsequent, often provocatively meagre.
"There is a Captain Silvester here," she wrote once; "such a bounder. But he is literally the only man who can dance in the station. So what would you? Poor Mrs. Paget is so shocked!"
Feathery hints of this description were by no means unusual, but though Merryon sometimes frowned over them, they did not make him uneasy. His will-o'-the-wisp might beckon, but she would never allow herself to be caught. She never spoke of love in her letters, always ending demurely, "Yours sincerely, Puck." But now and then there was a small cross scratched impulsively underneath the name, and the letters that bore this token accompanied Merryon through his inferno whithersoever he went.
There came at last a night of terrible heat, when it seemed as if the world itself must burst into flames. A heavy storm rolled up, roared overhead for a space like a caged monster, and sullenly rolled away, without a single drop of rain to ease the awful tension of waiting that possessed all things.
Merryon left the mess early, tramping back over the dusty road, convinced that the downpour for which they all yearned was at hand. There was no moonlight that night, only a hot blackness, illumined now and then by a brilliant dart of lightning that shocked the senses and left behind a void indescribable, a darkness that could be felt. There was something savage in the atmosphere, something primitive and passionate that seemed to force itself upon him even against his will. His pulses were strung to a tropical intensity that made him aware of the man's blood in him, racing at fever heat through veins that felt swollen to bursting.
He entered his bungalow and flung off his clothes, took a plunge in a bath of tepid water, from which he emerged with a pricking sensation all over him that made the lightest touch a torture, and finally, keyed up to a pitch of sensitiveness that excited his own contempt, he pulled on some pyjamas and went out to his charpoy on the veranda.
He dismissed the punkah coolie, feeling his presence to be intolerable, and threw himself down with his coat flung open. The oppression of the atmosphere was as though a red-hot lid were being forced down upon the tortured earth. The blackness beyond the veranda was like a solid wall. Sleep was out of the question. He could not smoke. It was an effort even to breathe. He could only lie in torment and wait—and wait.
The flashes of lightning had become less frequent. A kind of waking dream began to move in his brain. A figure gradually grew upon that screen of darkness—an elf-like thing, intangible, transparent, a quivering, shadowy image, remote as the dawn.
Wide-eyed, he watched the vision, his pulses beating with a mad longing so fierce as to be utterly beyond his own control. It was as though he had drunk strong wine and had somehow slipped the leash of ordinary convention. The savagery of the night, the tropical intensity of it, had got into him. Half-naked, wholly primitive, he lay and waited—and waited.
For a while the vision hung before him, tantalizing him, maddening him, eluding him. Then came a flash of lightning, and it was gone.
He started up on the charpoy, every nerve tense as stretched wire.
"Come back!" he cried, hoarsely. "Come back!"
Again the lightning streaked the darkness.
There came a burst of thunder, and suddenly, through it and above it, he heard the far-distant roar of rain. He sprang to his feet. It was coming.
The seconds throbbed away. Something was moving in the compound, a subtle, awful Something. The trees and bushes quivered before it, the cluster-roses rattled their dead leaves wildly. But the man stood motionless in the light that fell across the veranda from the open window of his room, watching with eyes that shone with a fierce and glaring intensity for the return of his vision.
The fevered blood was hammering at his temples. For the moment he was scarcely sane. The fearful strain of the past few weeks that had overwhelmed less hardy men had wrought upon him in a fashion more subtle but none the less compelling. They had been stricken down, whereas he had been strung to a pitch where bodily suffering had almost ceased to count. He had grown used to the torment, and now in this supreme moment it tore from him his civilization, but his physical strength remained untouched. He stood alert and ready, like a beast in a cage, waiting for whatever the gods might deign to throw him.
The tumult beyond that wall of blackness grew. It became a swirling uproar. The rose-vines were whipped from the veranda and flung writhing in all directions. The trees in the compound strove like terrified creatures in the grip of a giant. The heat of the blast was like tongues of flame blown from an immense furnace. Merryon's whole body seemed to be wrapped in fire. With a fierce movement, he stripped the coat from him and flung it into the room behind him. He was alone save for the devils that raged in that pandemonium. What did it matter how he met them?
And then, with the suddenness of a stupendous weight dropped from heaven, came rain, rain in torrents and billows, rain solid as the volume of Niagara, a crushing mighty force.
The tempest shrieked through the compound. The lightning glimmered, leapt, became continuous. The night was an inferno of thunder and violence.
And suddenly out of the inferno, out of the awful strife of elements, out of that frightful rainfall, there came—a woman!
She came haltingly, clinging with both hands to the rail of the veranda, her white face staring upwards in terror and instinctive appeal. She was like an insect dragging itself away from destruction, with drenched and battered wings.
He saw her coming and stiffened. It was his vision returned to him, but till she came within reach of him he was afraid to move. He stood upright against the wall, every mad instinct of his blood fiercely awake and clamouring.
The noise and wind increased. It swirled along the veranda. She seemed afraid to quit her hold of the balustrade lest she should be swept away. But still she drew nearer to the lighted window, and at last, with desperate resolution, she tore herself free and sprang for shelter.
In that instant the man also sprang. He caught her in arms that almost expected to clasp emptiness, arms that crushed in a savage ecstasy of possession at the actual contact with a creature of flesh and blood. In the same moment the lamp in the room behind him flared up and went out.
There arose a frightened crying from his breast. For a few moments she fought like a mad thing for freedom. He felt her teeth set in his arm, and laughed aloud. Then very suddenly her struggles ceased. He became aware of a change in her. She gave her whole weight into his arms, and lay palpitating against his heart.
By the awful glare of the lightning he found her face uplifted to his. She was laughing, too, but in her eyes was such a passion of love as he had never looked upon before. In that moment he knew that she was his—wholly, completely, irrevocably his. And, stooping, he kissed the upturned lips with the fierce exultation of the conqueror.
Her arms slipped round his neck. She abandoned herself wholly to him. She gave him worship for worship, passion for passion.
Later, he awoke to the fact that she was drenched from head to foot. He drew her into his room and shut the window against the driving blast. She clung to him still.
"Isn't it dreadful?" she said, shuddering. "It's just as if Something Big is trying to get between us."
He closed the shutter also, and groped for matches. She accompanied him on his search, for she would not lose touch with him for a moment.
The lamp flared on her white, childish face, showing him wild joy and horror strangely mingled. Her great eyes laughed up at him.
"Billikins, darling! You aren't very decent, are you? I'm not decent either, Billikins. I'd like to take off all my clothes and dance on my head."
He laughed grimly. "You will certainly have to undress—the sooner the better."
She spread out her hands. "But I've nothing to wear, Billikins, nothing but what I've got on. I didn't know it was going to rain so. You'll have to lend me a suit of pyjamas, dear, while I get my things dried. You see"—she halted a little—"I came away in rather a hurry. I—was bored."
Merryon, oddly sobered by her utter dependence upon him, turned aside and foraged for brandy. She came close to him while he poured it out.
"It isn't for me, is it? I couldn't drink it, darling. I shouldn't know what was happening for the next twenty-four hours if I did."
"It doesn't matter whether you do or not," he said. "I shall be here to look after you."
She laughed at that, a little quivering laugh of sheer content. Her cheek was against his shoulder. "Live for ever, O king!" she said, and softly kissed it.
Then she caught sight of something on the arm below. "Oh, darling, did I do that?" she cried, in distress.
He put the arm about her. "It doesn't matter. I don't feel it," he said. "I've got you."
She lifted her lips to his again. "Billikins, darling, I didn't know it was you—at first, not till I heard you laugh. I'd rather die than hurt you. You know it, don't you?"
"Of course I know it," he said.
He caught her to him passionately for a moment, then slowly relaxed his hold. "Drink this, like a good child," he said, "and then you must get to bed. You are wet to the skin."
"I know I am," she said, "but I don't mind."
"I mind for you," he said.
She laughed up at him, her eyes like stars. "I was lucky to get in when I did," she said. "Wasn't the heat dreadful—and the lightning? I ran all the way from the station. I was just terrified at it all. But I kept thinking of you, dear—of you, and how—and how you'd kissed me that night when I was such a little idiot as to cry. Must I really drink it, Billikins? Ah, well, just to please you—anything to please you. But you must have one little sip first. Yes, darling, just one. That's to please your silly little wife, who wants to share everything with you now. There's my own boy! Now I'll drink every drop—every drop."
She began to drink, standing in the circle of his arm; then looked up at him with a quick grimace. "It's powerful strong, dear. You'll have to put me to bed double quick after this, or I shall be standing on my head in earnest."
He laughed a little. She leaned back against him.
"Yes, I know, darling. You're a man that likes to manage, aren't you? Well, you can manage me and all that is mine for the rest of my natural life. I'm never going to leave you again, Billikins. That's understood, is it?"
His face sobered. "What possessed you to come back to this damnable place?" he said.
She laughed against his shoulder. "Now, Billikins, don't you start asking silly questions. I'll tell you as much as it's good for you to know all in good time. I came mainly because I wanted to. And that's the reason why I'm going to stay. See?"
She reached up an audacious finger and smoothed the faint frown from his forehead with her sunny, provocative smile.
"It'll have to be a joint management," she said. "There are so many things you mustn't do. Now, darling, I've finished the brandy to please you. So suppose you look out your prettiest suit of pyjamas, and I'll try and get into them." She broke into a giddy little laugh. "What would Mrs. Paget say? Can't you see her face? I can!"
She stopped suddenly, struck dumb by a terrible blast of wind that shook the bungalow to its foundations.
"Just hark to the wind and the rain, Billikins!" she whispered, as it swirled on. "Did you ever hear anything so awful? It's as if—as if God were very furious—about something. Do you think He is, dear? Do you?" She pressed close to him with white, pleading face upraised. "Do you believe in God, Billikins? Honestly now!"
The man hesitated, holding her fast in his arms, seeing only the quivering, childish mouth and beseeching eyes.
"You don't, do you?" she said. "I don't myself, Billikins. I think He's just a myth. Or anyhow—if He's there at all—He doesn't bother about the people who were born on the wrong side of the safety-curtain. There, darling! Kiss me once more—I love your kisses—I love them! And now go! Yes—yes, you must go—just while I make myself respectable. Yes, but you can leave the door ajar, dear heart! I want to feel you close at hand. I am yours—till I die—king and master!"
Her eyes were brimming with tears; he thought her overwrought and weary, and passed them by in silence.
And so through that night of wonder, of violence, and of storm, she lay against his heart, her arms wound about his neck with a closeness which even sleep could not relax.
Out of the storm she had come to him, like a driven bird seeking refuge; and through the fury of the storm he held her, compassing her with the fire of his passion.
"I am safe now," she murmured once, when he thought her sleeping. "I am quite—quite safe."
And he, fancying the raging of the storm had disturbed her, made hushing answer, "Quite safe, wife of my heart."
She trembled a little, and nestled closer to his breast.
"You can't mean to let your wife stay here!" ejaculated the colonel, sharply. "You wouldn't do anything so mad!"
Merryon's hard mouth took a sterner downward curve. "My wife refuses to leave me, sir," he said.
"Good heavens above, Merryon!" The colonel's voice held a species of irritated derision. "Do you tell me you can't manage—a—a piece of thistledown like that?"
Merryon was silent, grimly, implacably silent. Plainly he had no intention of making such an admission.
"It's madness—criminal madness!" Colonel Davenant looked at him aggressively, obviously longing to pierce that stubborn calm with which Merryon had so long withstood the world.
But Merryon remained unmoved, though deep in his private soul he knew that the colonel was right, knew that he had decided upon a course of action that involved a risk which he dreaded to contemplate.
"Oh, look here, Merryon!" The colonel lost his temper after his own precipitate fashion. "Don't be such a confounded fool! Take a fortnight's leave—I can't spare you longer—and go back to the Hills with her! Make her settle down with my wife at Shamkura! Tell her you'll beat her if she doesn't!"
Merryon's grim face softened a little. "Thank you very much, sir! But you can't spare me even for so long. Moreover, that form of punishment wouldn't scare her. So, you see, it would come to the same thing in the end. She is determined to face what I face for the present."
"And you're determined to let her!" growled the colonel.
Merryon shrugged his shoulders.
"You'll probably lose her," the colonel persisted, gnawing fiercely at his moustache. "Have you considered that?"
"I've considered everything," Merryon said, rather heavily. "But she came to me—through that inferno. I can't send her away again. She wouldn't go."
Colonel Davenant swore under his breath. "Let me talk to her!" he said, after a moment.
The ghost of a smile touched Merryon's face. "It's no good, sir. You can talk. You won't make any impression."
"But it's practically a matter of life and death, man!" insisted the colonel. "You can't afford any silly sentiment in an affair like this."
"I am not sentimental," Merryon said, and his lips twitched a little with the words. "But all the same, since she has set her heart on staying, she shall stay. I have promised that she shall."
"You are mad," the colonel declared. "Just think a minute! Think what your feelings will be if she dies!"
"I have thought, sir." The dogged note was in Merryon's voice again. His face was a mask of impenetrability. "If she dies, I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I made her happy first."
It was his last word on the subject. He departed, leaving the colonel fuming.
That evening the latter called upon Mrs. Merryon. He found her sitting on her husband's knee smoking a Turkish cigarette, and though she abandoned this unconventional attitude to receive her visitor, he had a distinct impression that the two were in subtle communion throughout his stay.
"It's so very nice of you to take the trouble," she said, in her charming way, when he had made his most urgent representations. "But really it's much better for me to be with my husband here. I stayed at Shamkura just as long as I could possibly bear it, and then I just had to come back here. I don't think I shall get ill—really. And if I do"—she made a little foreign gesture of the hands—"I'll nurse myself."
As Merryon had foretold, it was useless to argue with her. She dismissed all argument with airy unreason. But yet the colonel could not find it in his heart to be angry with her. He was very angry with Merryon, so angry that for a whole fortnight he scarcely spoke to him.
But when the end of the fortnight came, and with it the first break in the rains, little Mrs. Merryon went smiling forth and returned his call.
"Are you still being cross with Billikins?" she asked him, while her hand lay engagingly in his. "Because it's really not his fault, you know. If he sent me to Kamchatka, I should still come back."
"You wouldn't if you belonged to me," said Colonel Davenant, with a grudging smile.
She laughed and shook her head. "Perhaps I shouldn't—not unless I loved you as dearly as I love Billikins. But I think you needn't be cross about it. I'm quite well. If you don't believe me, you can look at my tongue."
She shot it out impudently, still laughing. And the colonel suddenly and paternally patted her cheek.
"You're a very naughty girl," he said. "But I suppose we shall have to make the best of you. Only, for Heaven's sake, don't go and get ill on the quiet! If you begin to feel queer, send for the doctor at the outset!"
He abandoned his attitude of disapproval towards Merryon after that interview, realizing possibly its injustice. He even declared in a letter to his wife that Mrs. Merryon was an engaging chit, with a will of her own that threatened to rule them all! Mrs. Davenant pursed her lips somewhat over the assertion, and remarked that Major Merryon's wife was plainly more at home with men than women. Captain Silvester was so openly out of temper over her absence that it was evident she had been "leading him on with utter heartlessness," and now, it seemed, she meant to have the whole mess at her beck and call.
As a matter of fact, Puck saw much more of the mess than she desired. It became the fashion among the younger officers to drop into the Merryons' bungalow at the end of the evening. Amusements were scarce, and Puck was a vigorous antidote to boredom. She always sparkled in society, and she was too sweet-natured to snub "the boys," as she called them. The smile of welcome was ever ready on her little, thin white face, the quick jest on her nimble tongue.
"We mustn't be piggy just because we are happy," she said to her husband once. "How are they to know we are having our honeymoon?" And then she nestled close to him, whispering, "It's quite the best honeymoon any woman ever had."
To which he could make but the one reply, pressing her to his heart and kissing the red lips that mocked so merrily when the world was looking on.
She had become the hub of his existence, and day by day he watched her anxiously, grasping his happiness with a feeling that it was too great to last.
The rains set in in earnest, and the reek of the Plains rose like an evil miasma to the turbid heavens. The atmosphere was as the interior of a steaming cauldron. Great toadstools spread like a loathsome disease over the compound. Fever was rife in the camp. Mosquitoes buzzed incessantly everywhere, and rats began to take refuge in the bungalow. Puck was privately terrified at rats, but she smothered her terror in her husband's presence and maintained a smiling front. They laid down poison for the rats, who died horribly in inaccessible places, making her wonder if they were not almost preferable alive. And then one night she discovered a small snake coiled in a corner of her bedroom.
She fled to Merryon in horror, and he and the khitmutgar slew the creature. But Puck's nerves were on edge from that day forward. She went through agonies of cold fear whenever she was left alone, and she feverishly encouraged the subalterns to visit her during her husband's absence on duty.
He raised no objection till he one day returned unexpectedly to find her dancing a hornpipe for the benefit of a small, admiring crowd to whom she had been administering tea.
She sprang like a child to meet him at his entrance, declaring the entertainment at an end; and the crowd soon melted away.
Then, somewhat grimly, Merryon took his wife to task.
She sat on the arm of his chair with her arms round his neck, swinging one leg while she listened. She was very docile, punctuating his remarks with soft kisses dropped inconsequently on the top of his head. When he ended, she slipped cosily down upon his knee and promised to be good.
It was not a very serious promise, and it was plainly proffered in a spirit of propitiation. Merryon pursued the matter no further, but he was vaguely dissatisfied. He had a feeling that she regarded his objections as the outcome of eccentric prudishness, or at the best an unreasonable fit of jealousy. She smoothed him down as though he had been a spoilt child, her own attitude supremely unabashed; and though he could not be angry with her, an uneasy sense of doubt pressed upon him. Utterly his own as he knew her to be, yet dimly, intangibly, he began to wonder what her outlook on life could be, how she regarded the tie that bound them. It was impossible to reason seriously with her. She floated out of his reach at the first touch.
So that curious honeymoon of theirs continued, love and passion crudely mingled, union without knowledge, flaming worship and blind possession.
"You are happy?" Merryon asked her once.
To which she made ardent answer, "Always happy in your arms, O king."
And Merryon was happy also, though, looking back later, it seemed to him that he snatched his happiness on the very edge of the pit, and that even at the time he must have been half-aware of it.
When, a month after her coming, the scourge of the Plains caught her, as was inevitable, he felt as if his new-found kingdom had begun already to depart from him.
For a few days Puck was seriously ill with malaria. She came through it with marvellous resolution, nursed by Merryon and his bearer, the general factotum of the establishment.
But it left her painfully weak and thin, and the colonel became again furiously insistent that she should leave the Plains till the rains were over.
Merryon, curiously enough, did not insist. Only one evening he took the little wasted body into his arms and begged her—actually begged her—to consent to go.
"I shall be with you for the first fortnight," he said. "It won't be more than a six-weeks' separation."
"Six weeks!" she protested, piteously.
"Perhaps less," he said. "I may be able to come to you for a day or two in the middle. Say you will go—and stay, sweetheart! Set my mind at rest!"
"But, darling, you may be ill. A thousand things may happen. And I couldn't go back to Shamkura. I couldn't!" said Puck, almost crying, clinging fast around his neck.
"But why not?" he questioned, gently. "Weren't they kind to you there? Weren't you happy?"
She clung faster. "Happy, Billikins! With that hateful Captain Silvester lying in wait to—to make love to me! I didn't tell you before. But that—that was why I left."
He frowned above her head. "You ought to have told me before, Puck."
She trembled in his arms. "It didn't seem to matter when once I'd got away; and I knew it would only make you cross."
"How did he make love to you?" demanded Merryon.
He tried to see her face, but she hid it resolutely against him. "Don't, Billikins! It doesn't matter now."
"It does matter," he said, sternly.
Puck was silent.
Merryon continued inexorably. "I suppose it was your own fault. You led him on."
She gave a little nervous laugh against his breast. "I never meant to, Billikins. I—I don't much like men—as a rule."
"You manage to conceal that fact very successfully," he said.
She laughed again rather piteously. "You don't know me," she whispered. "I'm not—like that—all through."
"I hope not," said Merryon, severely.
She turned her face slightly upwards and snuggled it into his neck. "You used not to mind," she said.
He held her close in his arms the while he steeled himself against her. "Well, I mind now," he said. "And I will have no more of it. Is that clearly understood?"
She assented dubiously, her lips softly kissing his neck. "It isn't—all my fault, Billikins," she whispered, wistfully, "that men treat me—lightly."
He set his teeth. "It must be your fault," he declared, firmly. "You can help it if you try."
She turned her face more fully to his. "How grim you look, darling! You haven't kissed me for quite five minutes."
"I feel more like whipping you," he said, grimly.
She leapt in his arms as if he had been about to put his words into action. "Oh, no!" she cried. "No, you wouldn't beat me, Billikins. You—you wouldn't, dear, would you?" Her great eyes, dilated and imploring, gazed into his for a long desperate second ere she gave herself back to him with a sobbing laugh. "You're not in earnest, of course. I'm silly to listen to you. Do kiss me, darling, and not frighten me anymore!"
He held her close, but still he did not comply with her request. "Did this Silvester ever kiss you?" he asked.
She shook her head vehemently, hiding her face.
"Look at me!" he said.
"No, Billikins!" she protested.
"Then tell me the truth!" he said.
"He kissed me—once, Billikins," came in distressed accents from his shoulder.
"And you?" Merryon's words sounded clipped and cold.
She shivered. "I ran right away to you. I—I didn't feel safe any more."
Merryon sat silent. Somehow he could not stir up his anger against her, albeit his inner consciousness told him that she had been to blame; but for the first time his passion was cooled. He held her without ardour, the while he wondered.
That night he awoke to the sound of her low sobbing at his side. His heart smote him. He put forth a comforting hand.
She crept into his arms. "Oh, Billikins," she whispered, "keep me with you! I'm not safe—by myself."
The man's soul stirred within him. Dimly he began to understand what his protection meant to her. It was her anchor, all she had to keep her from the whirlpools. Without it she was at the mercy of every wind that blew. Again cold doubt assailed him, but he put it forcibly away. He gathered her close, and kissed the tears from her face and the trouble from her heart.
THE MOUTH OF THE PIT
So Puck had her way and stayed.
She was evidently sublimely happy—at least in Merryon's society, but she did not pick up her strength very quickly, and but for her unfailing high spirits Merryon would have felt anxious about her. There seemed to be nothing of her. She was not like a creature of flesh and blood. Yet how utterly, how abundantly, she satisfied him! She poured out her love to him in a perpetual offering that never varied or grew less. She gave him freely, eagerly, glowingly, all she had to give. With passionate triumph she answered to his need. And that need was growing. He could not blind himself to the fact. His profession no longer filled his life. There were times when he even resented its demands upon him. The sick list was rapidly growing, and from morning till night his days were full.
Puck made no complaint. She was always waiting for him, however late the hour of his return. She was always in his arms the moment the dripping overcoat was removed. Sometimes he brought work back with him, and wrestled with regimental accounts and other details far into the night. It was not his work, but someone had to do it, and it had devolved upon him.
Puck never would go to bed without him. It was too lonely, she said; she was afraid of snakes, or rats, or bogies. She used to curl up on the charpoy in his room, clad in the airiest of wrappers, and doze the time away till he was ready.
One night she actually fell into a sound sleep thus, and he, finishing his work, sat on and on, watching her, loath to disturb her. There was deep pathos in her sleeping face. Lines that in her waking moments were never apparent were painfully noticeable in repose. She had the puzzled, wistful look of a child who has gone through trouble without understanding it—a hurt and piteous look.
He watched her thus till a sense of trespass came upon him, and then he rose, bent over her, and very tenderly lifted her.
She was alert on the instant, with a sharp movement of resistance. Then at once her arms went round his neck. "Oh, darling, is it you? Don't bother to carry me! You're so tired!"
He smiled at the idea, and she nestled against his heart, lifting soft lips to his.
He carried her to bed, and laid her down, but she would not let him go immediately. She yet clung about his neck, hiding her face against it.
He held her closely. "Good-night, little pal—little sweetheart," he said.
Her arms tightened. "Billikins!" she said.
He waited. "What is it, dear?"
She became a little agitated. He could feel her lips moving, but they said no audible word.
He waited in silence. And suddenly she raised her face and looked at him fully. There was a glory in her eyes such as he had never seen before.
"I dreamt last night that the wonderfullest thing happened," she said, her red lips quivering close to his own. "Billikins, what if—the dream came true?"
A hot wave of feeling went through him at her words. He crushed her to him, feeling the quick beat of her heart against his own, the throbbing surrender of her whole being to his. He kissed her burningly, with such a passion of devotion as had never before moved him.
She laughed rapturously. "Isn't it great, Billikins?" she said. "And I'd have missed it all if it hadn't been for you. Just think—if I hadn't jumped—before the safety-curtain—came—down!"
She was speaking between his kisses, and eventually they stopped her.
"Don't think," he said; "don't think!"
It was the beginning of a new era, the entrance of a new element into their lives. Perhaps till that night he had never looked upon her wholly in the light of wife. His blind passion for her had intoxicated him. She had been to him an elf from fairyland, a being elusive who offered him all the magic of her love, but upon whom he had no claims. But from that night his attitude towards her underwent a change. Very tenderly he took her into his own close keeping. She had become human in his eyes, no longer a wayward sprite, but a woman, eager-hearted, and his own. He gave her reverence because of that womanhood which he had only just begun to visualize in her. Out of his passion there had kindled a greater fire. All that she had in life she gave him, glorying in the gift, and in return he gave her love.