A set of melodramatic love stories, first published in 1917 by the hugely successful English writer of popular romances. This collection contains five of Ethel M. Dell’s best short stories: „The Safety Curtain”, „The Experiment”, „Those Who Wait”, „The Eleventh Hour”, „The Place of Honor”. In „The Safety Curtain”, a dragonfly-like dancing girl is „rescued” by a subaltern when he offers her a marriage of convenience and takes her to his station in India. But she hides a mysterious past and eventually it catches up. Will love be able to conquer all? If you enjoy the works of Ethel M. (Ethel May) Dell then we highly recommend this publication for your book collection.
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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 naïvely spoken, so naïvely 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 æons 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.
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