The Safety Curtain - Ethel M. Dell - ebook

The Safety Curtain ebook

Ethel M. Dell

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A set of five melodramatic love short stories, first published in 1917 and written by a popular 20th century writer Ethel M. Dell. „The Safety Curtain” is an unusual love story that takes place in India mainly and has much excitement. 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? This collection contains also: „The Experiment”, „Those Who Wait”, „The Eleventh Hour”, „The Place of Honour”. All the other stories are love stories and have many twists and turns. Highly recommended!

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Contents

The Safety Curtain

CHAPTER I. THE ESCAPE

CHAPTER II. NOBODY'S BUSINESS

CHAPTER III. COMRADES

CHAPTER IV. FRIENDS

CHAPTER V. THE WOMAN

CHAPTER VI. LOVERS

CHAPTER VII. THE HONEYMOON

CHAPTER VIII. THE MOUTH OF THE PIT

CHAPTER IX. GREATER THAN DEATH

CHAPTER X. THE SACRIFICE

CHAPTER XI. THE SACRED FIRE

CHAPTER XII. FREEDOM

The Experiment

CHAPTER I. ON TRIAL

CHAPTER II. HIS INTENTIONS

CHAPTER III. THE KNIGHT ERRANT

CHAPTER IV. AT CLOSE QUARTERS

CHAPTER V. THE WAY TO FREEDOM

CHAPTER VI. A MASTER STROKE

CHAPTER VII. THE MAN AT THE WHEEL

CHAPTER VIII. THE SURRENDER OF THE CITADEL

CHAPTER IX. THE WILLING CAPTIVE

Those Who Wait

The Eleventh Hour

CHAPTER I. HIS OWN GROUND

CHAPTER II. THE PLOUGHMAN

CHAPTER III. THE APOLOGY

CHAPTER IV. CORN

CHAPTER V. A BARGAIN

CHAPTER VI. THE WEDDING PRESENT

CHAPTER VII. THE END OF THE PICNIC

CHAPTER VIII. THE NEW LIFE

CHAPTER IX. THE WAY TO BE HAPPY

CHAPTER X. CHRISTMAS EVE

CHAPTER XI. CHRISTMAS MORNING

CHAPTER XII. CHRISTMAS NIGHT

CHAPTER XIII. A FARMER'S WIFE

The Place of Honour

CHAPTER I. THE BRIDE

CHAPTER II. EARLY BREEZES

CHAPTER III. AMID THE RUINS

CHAPTER IV. AN UNCONVENTIONAL CALL

CHAPTER V. THE BARRIER

CHAPTER VI. MRS. TUDOR'S CONFESSION

CHAPTER VII. AN UNPLEASANT INTERVIEW

CHAPTER VIII. AT THE DANCE

CHAPTER IX. DREADFUL NEWS

CHAPTER X. A CHANGE OF PRISONERS

CHAPTER XI. THE AWAKENING

CHAPTER XII. A WOMAN'S AGONY

CHAPTER XIII. HAPPINESS AGAIN

The Safety Curtain

CHAPTER I

THE ESCAPE

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.

CHAPTER II

NOBODY’S BUSINESS

“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?”

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