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The safety curtain


ProjectGutenberg'sTheSafetyCurtain,andOtherStories,byEthelM.Dell
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Title:TheSafetyCurtain,andOtherStories
Author:EthelM.Dell
ReleaseDate:September4,2005[EBook#16651]
[Lastupdated:August10,2013]
Language:English

***STARTOFTHISPROJECTGUTENBERGEBOOKTHESAFETYCURTAIN***

ProducedbySuzanneShell,PaulEreautandtheOnline
DistributedProofreadingTeamathttp://www.pgdp.net

"Youmaytakethemtothedevil!"Merryonsaid.
"Youmaytakethemtothedevil!"Merryonsaid.
DrawnbyArthurIKeller.(Seepage85)



THE


SAFETYCURTAIN


ANDOTHERSTORIES
by
ETHELM.DELL
AUTHOROF:TheHundrethChance
Greatheart
TheLampintheDesert
TheTidalWave
TheTopoftheWorld
TheObstacleRace
TheWayofanEagle
TheKnaveofDiamonds
TheRocksofValpré
TheSwindler
TheKeeperoftheDoor
BarsofIron
RosaMundi
Etc.
GROSSET&DUNLAPPUBLISHERSNEWYORK
MadeintheUnitedStatesofAmerica
Thiseditionisissuedunderarrangementwiththepublishers
G.P.Putnam'sSons,NewYorkandLondon
MadeintheUnitedStatesofAmerica
TheKnickerbockerPress,NewYork


CONTENTS
TheSafetyCurtain
TheExperiment
ThoseWhoWait
TheEleventhHour
ThePlaceofHonour
ETHELM.DELL'SNOVELS




TheSafetyCurtain
CHAPTERI
THEESCAPE
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,
flashedaway.
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
musthaveprovedutterlyexhaustingtoanyordinarybeing;buttothatcreature
offireandmagicitwasnomorethanaglitteringfantasy,awhirltooswiftfor
theeyetofolloworthebraintograsp.
"Isitaboyoragirl?"askedamaninthefrontrow.
"It'saboy,ofcourse,"saidhisneighbour,shortly.
He was the only member of the audience who did not take part in that third
encore.Hesatsquarelyinhisseatthroughouttheuproar,watchingthestagewith
piercing grey eyes that never varied in their stern directness. His brows were
drawnabovethem—thick,straightbrowsthatbespokeaformidablestrengthof
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.
Louderandlouderswelledthetumult.Itwasevidentthatnothingbutarepetition
ofthewonder-dancewouldcontenttheaudience.Theyyelledthemselveshoarse
forit;andwhen,lightasair,incrediblyswift,thegreenDragon-Flydartedback,
they outdid themselves in the madness of their welcome. The noise seemed to
shakethebuilding.
Onlythemaninthefrontrowwiththeiron-greyeyesandiron-hardmouthmade
no movement or sound of any sort. He merely watched with unchanging
intentness the face that gleamed, ashen-white, above the shimmering metallic
greentightsthatclothedthedancer'sslimbody.


Thenoiseceasedasthewildtarantellaproceeded.Therefelladeephush,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
onlookerswithbatedbreath.
Itlastedforperhapstwominutes,thatintenseandtrancelikestillness;then,like,
a stone flung into glassy depths, a woman's scream rudely shattered it, a
piercing,terror-strickenscreamthatbroughttheraptaudiencebacktoearthwith
ashockastheliquidmusicoftheflutesuddenlyceased.
"Fire!"criedthevoice."Fire!Fire!"
Therewasaninstantofhorrifiedinaction,andinthatinstantatongueofflame
shot like a fiery serpent through the closed curtains behind the dancer. In a
momentthecrywascaughtupandrepeatedinadozendirections,andevenasit
wentfrommouthtomouththesafety-curtainbegantodescend.
Thedancerwasforgotten,sweptasitwerefromthemindsoftheaudienceasan
insectwhoselifewasofnoaccount.Fromthebackofthestagecamearoarlike
theroarofanopenfurnace.Agreatwaveofheatrushedintothehall,andpeople
turnedliketerrified,stampedinganimalsandmadefortheexits.
TheDragon-Flystillstoodbehindthefootlightspoisedasifforflight,glancing
thiswayandthat,shimmeringfromheadtofootintheawfulglarethatspread
behindthedescendingcurtain.Itwasevidentthatretreatbehindthesceneswas
impossible,andinanothermomentortwothatfallingcurtainwouldcutoffthe
onlywayleft.
Butsuddenly,beforethedancer'shuntedeyes,amanleaptforward.Heheldup
his arms, making himself heard in clear command above the dreadful babel
behindhim.
"Quick!"hecried."Jump!"
Thewildeyesflasheddownathim,wavered,andwerecaughtinhiscompelling
gaze. For a single instant—the last—the trembling, glittering figure seemed to
hesitate,thenlikeastreakoflightningleaptstraightoverthefootlightsintothe
outstretchedarms.
Theycaughtandheldwithunwaveringironstrength.Inthemidstofaturmoil


indescribable the Dragon-Fly hung quivering on the man's breast, the gauze
wingsshatteredinthatclose,sustaininggrip.Thesafety-curtaincamedownwith
a thud, shutting off the horrors behind, and a loud voice yelled through the
buildingassuringtheseethingcrowdofsafety.
Butpanichadsetin.Theheatwasterrific.Peoplefoughtandstruggledtoreach
theexits.
The dancer turned in the man's arms and raised a deathly face, gripping his
shoulderswithclinging,convulsivefingers.Twowilddarkeyeslookeduptohis,
desperatelyafraid,seekingreassurance.
Heansweredthatlookbrieflywithsterncomposure.
"Bestill!IshallsaveyouifIcan."
Thedancer'sheartwasbeatinginmadterroragainsthisown,butathiswordsit
seemedtogrowalittlecalmer.Quiveringlythewhitelipsspoke.
"Thereisadoor—closetothestage—alittledoor—behindagreencurtain—if
wecouldreachit."
"Ah!"themansaid.
Hiseyes wentto thestage,fromtheproximityofwhichtheaudiencehadfled
affrighted.Heespiedthecurtain.
Only a few people intervened between him and it, and they were struggling to
escapeintheoppositedirection.
"Quick!"gaspedthedancer.
He turned, snatched up his great-coat, and wrapped it about the slight, boyish
figure.Thegreatdarkeyesthatshoneoutofthesmallwhitefacethankedhim
for the action. The clinging hands slipped from his shoulders and clasped his
arm.Togethertheyfacedthefearfulheatthatragedbehindthesafety-curtain.
They reached the small door, gasping. It was almost hidden by green drapery.
Butthedancerwasevidentlyfamiliarwithit.Inamomentitwasopen.Agreat
burstofsmokemetthem.Themandrewback.Butaquickhandcloseduponhis,
drawinghimon.Hewentblindly,feelingasifheweresteppingintotheheartof
afurnace,yetstrangelydeterminedtogoforwardwhatevercameofit.


Thesmokeandtheheatwerefrightful,suffocatingintheirintensity.Theroarof
theunseenflamesseemedtofilltheworld.
Thedoorswungtobehindthem.Theystoodinseethingdarkness.
Butagainthesmallclinginghandpulledupontheman.
"Quick!"thedancercriedagain.
Chokedandgasping,butresolutestill,hefollowed.Theyranthroughapassage
thatmusthavebeenontheveryedgeofthevortexofflame,forbehindthemere
theyleftitaredlightglared.
It showed another door in front of them with which the dancer struggled a
moment,thenflungopen.Theyburstthroughittogether,andthecoldnightwind
metthemlikeanangelofdeliverance.
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
intotheopen.
Theyemergedintoanarrowalley,surroundedbytallhouses.Thenightwasdark
and wet. The rain pattered upon them as they staggered out into a space that
seemeddeserted.Thesuddenquietaftertheawfulturmoiltheyhadjustleftwas
likethesilenceofdeath.
Themanstoodstillandwipedthesweatinadazedfashionfromhisface.The
littledancerreeledbackagainstthewall,pantingdesperately.
Foraspaceneithermoved.Then,terribly,thesilencewasrentbyacrashandthe
roarofflames.Anawfulrednessleaptacrossthedarknessofthenight,revealing
eachtoeach.
Thedancerstoodupsuddenlyandmadeanoddlittlegestureoffarewell;then,
swiftly, to the man's amazement, turned back towards the door through which
theyhadburstbutafewsecondsbefore.
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.
Heheardafaintcry,andthereensuedasharpstruggleagainsthishold;buthe
pinioned the thin young arms without ceremony, gripping them fast. In the


awful, flickering glare above them his eyes shone downwards, dominant,
relentless.
"Areyoumad?"hesaid.
Thesmalldarkheadwasshakenvehemently,withgesturescuriouslysuggestive
ofanimprisonedinsect.Itwasasifwildwingsflutteredagainstcaptivity.
And then all in a moment the struggling ceased, and in a low, eager voice the
captivebegantoplead.
"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'tkeepme—youwouldn'tkeepme—againstmywill!"
"Doyouwanttodie,then?"themandemanded."Areyoutiredoflife?"
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
strangelyvigorousaffirmative.
"Yes,thatisit!Iamsotired—sotiredoflife!Don'tkeepme!Letmego—while
I have the strength!" The little, white, sharp-featured face, with its tight-shut
eyesandchildish,quiveringmouth,waspainfullypathetic."Deathcan'tbemore
dreadfulthanlife,"thelowvoiceurged."IfIdon'tgoback—Ishallbesosorry
afterwards.Whyshouldonelive—tosuffer?"
Itwaspiteouslyspoken,sopiteouslythatforamomentthemanseemedmoved
tocompassion.Hisholdrelaxed;butwhenthelittleformbetweenhishandstook
swiftadvantageandstrainedafreshforfreedomheinstantlytightenedhisgrip.
"No,No!"hesaid,harshly."Thereareotherthingsinlife.Youdon'tknowwhat
youaredoing.Youarenotresponsible."
The dark eyes opened upon him then—wide, reproachful, mysteriously farseeing."Ishallnotberesponsible—ifyoumakemelive,"saidtheDragon-Fly,
withtheairofoneriskingafinaldesperatethrow.
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
withme!"
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
threadedtheirwaythroughdarkandwindingalleysbacktothethrobbinglifeof
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
shortatimebefore.

CHAPTERII
NOBODY'SBUSINESS
"MynameisMerryon,"themansaid,curtly."IamamajorintheIndianArmy—
homeonleave.Nowtellmeaboutyourself!"
Hedeliveredtheinformationinthebrief,aggressivefashionthatseemedtobe
characteristicofhim,andhelookedovertheheadofhisyoungvisitorashedid
so,almostasifhemadethestatementagainsthiswill.
The visitor, still clad in his great-coat, crouched like a dog on the hearthrug
beforethefireinMerryon'ssitting-room,andgazedwithwide,unblinkingeyes
intotheflames.
AfterafewmomentsMerryon'seyesdescendedtothedarkheadandsurveyedit
critically.Thecollarofhiscoatwasturnedupallroundit.Itwasglisteningwith
rain-dropsandlookedliketheheadofsomesmall,furryanimal.
Asifawareofthatstraightregard,thedancerpresentlyspoke,withoutturningor
movinganeyelid.
"Whatyouaredoesn'tmattertoanyoneexceptyourself.AndwhatIamdoesn't
mattereither.It'sjust—nobody'sbusiness."
"Isee,"saidMerryon.
A faint smile crossed his grim, hard-featured face. He sat down in a low chair
nearhisguestanddrewtohissideasmalltablethatboreatrayofrefreshments.
He poured out a glass of wine and held it towards the queer, elfin figure
croucheduponhishearth.


Thedarkeyessuddenlyflashedfromthefiretohisface."Whydoyouofferme
—that?"thedancerdemanded,inavoicethatwascuriouslyvibrant,asthoughit
strove to conceal some overwhelming emotion. "Why don't you give me—a
man'sdrink?"
"Because I think this will suit you better," Merryon said; and he spoke with a
gentlenessthatwasoddlyatvariancewiththefrownthatdrewhisbrows.
The dark eyes stared up at him, scared and defiant, for the passage of several
seconds;then,verysuddenly,thetensionwentoutofthewhite,pinchedface.It
screweduplikethefaceofahurtchild,andallinamomentthelittle,huddled
figure collapsed on the floor at his feet, while sobs—a woman's quivering
piteoussobs—filledthesilenceoftheroom.
Merryon'sownfacewasacuriousmixtureofpityandconstraintashesetdown
theglassandstoopedforwardovertheshaking,anguishedform.
"Lookhere,child!"hesaid,andwhateverelsewasinhisvoiceitcertainlyheld
none of the hardness habitual to it. "You're upset—unnerved. Don't cry so!
Whateveryou'vebeenthrough,it'sover.Noonecanmakeyougoback.Doyou
understand?You'refree!"
Helaidhishand,withtheclumsinessofonelittleaccustomedtoconsole,upon
thebowedblackhead.
"Don't!"hesaidagain."Don'tcryso!Whatthedevildoesitmatter?You'resafe
enoughwithme.I'mnotthesortofboundertogiveyouaway."
Shedrewalittlenearertohim."You—you'renotabounder—atall,"sheassured
himbetweenhersobs."You'rejust—agentleman.That'swhatyouare!"
"Allright,"saidMerryon."Leaveoffcrying!"
He spoke with the same species of awkward kindliness that characterized his
actions,andtheremusthavebeensomethingstrangelycomfortinginhisspeech,
forthelittledancer'stearsceasedasabruptlyastheyhadbegun. Shedasheda
tremblinghandacrosshereyes.
"Who'scrying?"shesaid.
He uttered a brief, half-grudging laugh. "That's better. Now drink some wine!
Yes,Iinsist!Youmusteatsomething,too.Youlookhalf-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
surveyedhimwithanimpishexpression—muchasagrasshoppermightsurveya
toad.
"Areyoumarried?"sheinquired,unexpectedly.
"No,"saidMerryon,shortly."Why?"
Shegavealittlelaughthathadacatchinit."Iwasonlythinkingthatyourwife
wouldn'tlikememuch.Womenaresosuspicious."
Merryon turned aside, and began to pour out a drink for himself. There was
somethingstrangelyelusiveaboutthislittlecreaturewhomFortunehadflungto
him.Hewonderedwhatheshoulddowithher.Wasshetoooldforafoundling
hospital?
"Howoldareyou?"heasked,abruptly.
Shedidnotanswer.
Helookedather,frowning.
"Don't!"shesaid."It'sugly.I'mnotquiteforty.Howoldareyou?"
"What?"saidMerryon.
"Not—quite—forty," she said again, with extreme distinctness. "I'm small for
myage,Iknow.ButIshallnevergrowanymorenow.Howolddidyousayyou
were?"
Merryon'seyesregardedherpiercingly."Ishouldlikethetruth,"hesaid,inhis
short,grimway.
Shemadeagrimacethatturnedintoanimpishsmile."Thenyoumuststickto
thethingsthatmatter,"shesaid."Thatis—nobody'sbusiness."
He tried to look severe, but very curiously failed. He picked up a plate of
sandwichestomaskamomentaryconfusion,andofferedittoher.
Again,withsimplicity,sheaccepted,andtherefellasilencebetweenthemwhile
sheate,hereyesagainuponthefire.Herface,inrepose,wasthesaddestthing
hehadeverseen.Morethaneverdidshemakehimthinkofachildthathadbeen
hurt.


She finished her sandwich and sat for a while lost in thought. Merryon leaned
backinhischair,watchingher.Thelittle,pointedfeaturespossessednobeauty,
yettheyhadthatwhichdrewtheattentionirresistibly.Thedelicatecharmofher
dancingwassomehowexpressedineveryline.Therewasfire,too,—astrange,
bewitchingfire,—behindthethickblacklashes.
Very suddenly that fire was turned upon him again. With a swift, darting
movementshekneltupinfrontofhim,herclaspedhandsonhisknees.
"Whydidyousavemejustnow?"shesaid."Whywouldn'tyouletmedie?"
Helookedfullather.Shevibratedlikeawingedcreatureonthevergeoftaking
flight. But her eyes—her eyes sought his with a strange assurance, as though
theysawinhimacomrade.
"Why did you make me live when I wanted to die?" she insisted. "Is life so
desirable?Haveyoufounditso?"
Hisbrowscontractedatthelastquestion,evenwhilehismouthcurvedcynically.
"Somepeoplefinditso,"hesaid.
"But you?" she said, and there was almost accusation in her voice, "Have the
godsbeenkindtoyou?Orhavetheythrownyouthedregs—justthedregs?"
The passionate note in the words, subdued though it was, was not to be
mistaken.Itstirredhimoddly,makinghimseeherforthefirsttimeasawoman
ratherthanasthefantasticbeing,half-elf,half-child,whomhehadwrestedfrom
theveryjawsofDeathagainstherwill.Heleanedslowlyforward,markingthe
deep,deepshadowsabouthereyes,thevividredofherlips.
"Whatdoyouknowaboutthedregs?"hesaid.
Shebeatherhandswithasmall,fiercemovementonhisknees,mutelyrefusing
toanswer.
"Ah,well,"hesaid,"Idon'tknowwhyIshouldanswereither.ButIwill.Yes,
I'vehaddregs—dregs—andnothingbutdregsforthelastfifteenyears."
Hespokewithabitternessthathescarcelyattemptedtorestrain,andthegirlat
hisfeetnodded—awiselittlefemininenod.
"Iknewyouhad.Itcomeshardertoaman,doesn'tit?"


"Idon'tknowwhyitshould,"saidMerryon,moodily.
"Ido,"saidtheDragon-Fly."It'sbecausemenweremadetobosscreation.See?
You'reoneofthebosses,youare.You'vebeenledtoexpectalot,andbecause
youhaven'thadityoufeelyou'vebeencheated.Lifeislikethat.It'sjustathing
thatmocksatyou.Iknow."
Shenoddedagain,andanodd,will-o'-the-wispsmileflittedoverherface.
"Youseemtoknow—somethingoflife,"themansaid.
She uttered a queer choking laugh. "Life is a big, big swindle," she said. "The
onlyhappypeopleintheworldarethosewhohaven'tfounditout.Butyou—you
saythereareotherthingsinlifebesidessuffering.Howdidyouknowthatif—if
you'veneverhadanythingbutdregs?"
"Ah!"Merryonsaid."Youhavemethere."
He was still looking full into those shadowy eyes with a curious, dawning
fellowshipinhisown.
"Youhavemethere,"herepeated."ButIdoknow.Iwashappyenoughonce,till
—"Hestopped.
"Thingswentwrong?"insinuatedtheDragon-Fly,sittingdownonherheelsina
childishattitudeofattention.
"Yes," Merryon admitted, in his sullen fashion. "Things went wrong. I found I
wasthesonofathief.He'sdeadnow,thankHeaven.Buthedraggedmeunder
first.I'vebeenatoddswithlifeeversince."
"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."
Thegirl'seyesshonewithinterest."Butthatwasluck!"shesaid.
"Oh,yes;itwasluckofasort—thedamnable,unsatisfactorysort.Ienteredthe
Indian Army, and I've got on. But socially I'm practically an outcast. They're
politetome,buttheyleavemeoutside.Themanwhorosefromtheranks—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
galledmeonce.I'musedtoitnow."
Merryon'sgrimvoicewentintogrimmersilence.Hewasstaringsombrelyinto
thefire,almostasifhehadforgottenhiscompanion.
Therefellapause;then,"Youpoordear!"saidtheDragon-Fly,sympathetically.
"ButIexpectyouarelikethat,youknow.Iexpectit'sabityourownfault."
Helookedatherinsurprise.
"No,I'mnotmeaninganythingnasty,"sheassuredhim,withthatquicksmileof
herswhosesweetnesshewasjustbeginningtorealize."Butafterabadknockout
likeyoursamannaturallylooksfortrouble.Hegetssuspicious,andasnubor
two does the rest. He isn't taking any more. It's a pity you're not married. A
womanwouldhaveknownhowtoholdherown,andabitover—foryou."
"I wouldn't ask any woman to share the life I lead," said Merryon, with bitter
emphasis."NotthatanywomanwouldifIdid.I'mnotaladies'man."
Shelaughedforthefirsttime,andhestartedatthesound,foritwasoneofpure,
girlishmerriment.
"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
goodonetotalkoflifebeingworthwhile,aren'tyou?"shesaid.
Heacceptedthefrankinvitation,faintlysmiling."Well,Iknowthegoodthings
arethere,"hesaid,"thoughI'vemissedthem."
"You'llmarryandbehappyyet,"shesaid,withconfidence."ButIshouldn'tput
itofftoolongifIwereyou."
Heshookhishead.Hishandstillhalf-consciouslygraspedhers."Askawoman
tomarrythesonofoneofthemostfamousswindlerseverknown?Ithinknot,"
he said. "Why, even you—" His eyes regarded her, comprehended her. He
stoppedabruptly.
"Whataboutme?"shesaid.
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—theymethislooksoserenely,soimpenetrably.
"I don't know how we got on to the subject of my affairs," he said, after a
moment."Itseemstomethatyoursarethemostimportantjustnow.Aren'tyou
goingtotellmeanythingaboutthem?"
Shegaveasmall,emphaticshakeofthehead."Ishouldhavebeendeadbythis
timeifyouhadn'tinterfered,"shesaid."Ihaven'tgotanyaffairs."
"Thenit'suptometolookafteryou,"Merryonsaid,quietly.
Butsheshookherheadatthatmorevigorouslystill."Youlookafterme!"Her
voicetrembledonanoteofderision."Sure,you'rejoking!"sheprotested."I've
lookedaftermyselfeversinceIwaseight."
"Andmadeasuccessofit?"Merryonasked.
Hereyesshotswiftdefiance."That'snobody'sbusinessbutmyown,"shesaid.
"YouknowwhatIthinkoflife."
Merryon's hand closed slowly upon hers. "There seems to be a pair of us," he
said."Youcan'trefusetoletmehelpyou—forfellowship'ssake."
Theredlipstrembledsuddenly.Thedarkeyesfellbeforehisforthefirsttime.
Shespokealmostunderherbreath."I'mtooold—totakehelpfromaman—like
that."
Hebentslightlytowardsher."Whathasagetodowithit?"
"Everything." Her eyes remained downcast; the hand he held was trying to
wrigglefree,buthewouldnotsufferit.
"Circumstancesaltercases,"hesaid."IacceptedtheresponsibilitywhenIsaved
you."
"Butyouhaven'ttheleastideawhattodowithme,"saidtheDragon-Fly,witha
forlornsmile."Yououghttohavethoughtofthat.You'llbegoingbacktoIndia
soon.AndI—andI—"Shestopped,stillstubbornlyrefusingtomeettheman's
eyes.
"Iamgoingbacknextweek,"Merryonsaid.
"Howfinetobeyou!"saidtheDragon-Fly."Youwouldn'tliketotakemewith
younowas—asvaletdechambre?"


He raised his brows momentarily. Then: "Would you come?" he asked, with a
certainroughness,asthoughhesuspectedheroftrifling.
Sheraisedhereyessuddenly,kindledandeager."WouldIcome!"shesaid,ina
tonethatsaidmorethanwords.
"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,boyishfigure,theactive,supplelimbs.Herbreathingcamethroughparted
lips.
"Asyour—yourservant—yourvalet?"shepanted.
Hisroughbrowsdrewtogether."Mywhat?Goodheavens,no!Icouldonlytake
youinonecapacity."
Shestartedbackfromhishand.Foramomentsheerhorrorlookedoutfromher
eyes.Then,almostinthesameinstant,theywereveiled.Shecaughtherbreath,
sayingnoword,onlydumblywaiting.
"I could only take you as my wife," he said, still in that half-bantering, halfembarrassedfashionofhis."Willyoucome?"
Shethrewbackherheadandstaredathim."Marryyou!What,really?Really?"
shequestioned,breathlessly.
"Merelyforappearances'sake,"saidMerryon,withgrimirony."Theregimental
morals are somewhat easily offended, and an outsider like myself can't be too
careful."
Thegirlwasstillstaringathim,asthoughatsomenovelspecimenofhumanity
that had never before crossed her path. Suddenly she leaned towards him,
lookinghimfullandstraightintheeyes.
"WhatwouldyoudoifIsaid'Yes'?"shequestioned,inasmall,tensewhisper.
He looked back at her, half-interested, half amused. "Do, urchin? Why, marry
you!"hesaid.
"Reallymarryme?"sheurged."Notmake-believe?"


Hestiffenedatthat."Doyouknowwhatyou'resaying?"hedemanded,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.
"Butyoucan'tbeinearnest!"shesaid.
"Iaminearnest."Heraisedhisfacetoherwithacertaindoggedness,asthough
challenging her to detect in it aught but honesty. "I may be several kinds of a
fool,"hesaid,"butIaminearnest.I'mnogreatcatch,butI'llmarryyouifyou'll
have me. I'll protect you, and I'll be good to you. I can't promise to make you
happy,ofcourse,but—anyway,Ishan'tmakeyoumiserable."
"But—but—" She still stood before him as though hovering on the edge of
flight.Herlipsweretrembling,herwholeformquiveringandscintillatinginthe
lamplight.Shehaltedonthewordsasifuncertainhowtoproceed.
"Whatisit?"saidMerryon.
Andthen,quitesuddenly,hismoodsoftened.Heleanedslowlyforward.
"You needn't be afraid of me," he said. "I'm not a heady youngster. I shan't
gobbleyouup."
She laughed at that—a quick, nervous laugh. "And you won't beat me either?
Promise!"
Hefrownedather."Beatyou!I?"
Shenoddedseveraltimes,faintlysmiling."Yes,you,Mr.Monster!I'msureyou
could."
He smiled also, somewhat grimly. "You're wrong, madam. I couldn't beat a
child."
"Oh,my!"shesaid,andthrewupherarmswithaquiveringlaugh,droppinghis
coatinaheaponthefloor."Howolddoyouthinkthischildis?"shequestioned,
glancingdownathiminhersidelong,speculativefashion.
Helookedatherhardandstraight,lookedattheslimyoungbodyinitssheathof
iridescentgreenthatshimmeredwitheverybreathshedrew,andverysuddenly
herose.
Shemadeaspringbackwards,butshewastoolate.Hecaughtandheldher.


"Letmego!"shecried,herfacecrimson.
"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'renotabrute,areyou?"shequestioned,breathlessly."You—you'llbegood
tome?Yousaidso!"
Hesurveyedhergrimly."Yes,Iwillbegoodtoyou,"hesaid."ButI'mnotgoing
tobefooled.Understand?Ifyoumarryme,youmustplaythepart.Idon'tknow
how old you are. I don't greatly care. All I do care about is that you behave
yourselfasthewifeofamaninmypositionshould.You'reoldenoughtoknow
whatthatmeans,Isuppose?"
He spoke impressively, but the effect of his words was not quite what he
expected.Thepointofaveryredtonguecamesuddenlyfrombetweenthered
lips,andinstantlydisappeared.
"Thatall?"shesaid."Ohyes;IthinkIcandothat.I'lltry,anyway.Andifyou're
not satisfied—well, you'll have to let me know. See? Now let me go, there's a
goodman!Idon'tlikethefeelofyourhands."
He let her go in answer to the pleading of her eyes, and she slipped from his
grasplikeaneel,caughtupthecoatatherfeet,andwriggledintoit.
Then,impishly,shefacedhim,buttoningitwithnimblefingersthewhile."This
isthegarmentofrespectability,"shedeclared."Itisn'tmuchofafit,isit?ButI
shall grow to it in time. Do you know, I believe I'm going to like being your
wife?"
"Why?"saidMerryon.
Shelaughed—thatlaughofirrepressiblegaietythathadsurprisedhimbefore.
"Oh,justbecauseIshallsolovefightingyourbattlesforyou,"shesaid."It'llbe
grandsport."
"Thinkso?"saidMerryon.
"Oh,youbet!"saidtheDragon-Fly,withgayconfidence."Menneverknowhow
tofight.They'repoorthings—men!"


He himself laughed at that—his grim, grudging laugh. "It's a world of fools,
Puck,"hesaid.
"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,"tohaverisenfromthedead."

CHAPTERIII
COMRADES
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
sweetmeatonthetiffin-tableintheveranda.Therewerealwayssweetsattiffin
inthemajor'sbungalow.Mrs.Merryonlovedsweets.Shewaswonttosaythat
theywerethebestremedyforhomesicknesssheknew.
Not that she ever was homesick. At least, no one ever suspected such a
possibility,forshehadasmileandaquipforall,andherlaughterwasthegayest
inthestation.Sheranoutnow,half-dressed,fromherbedroom,wavingatowel
atthemarauder.
"That comes of being kind-hearted," she declared, in the deep voice that
accorded so curiously with the frothy lightness of her personality. "Everyone
takesadvantageofit,sure."
HereyesweregreyandIrish,andtheyflashedoverthescenedramatically,albeit
there was no one to see and admire. For she was strangely captivating, and
perhapsitwashardlytobeexpectedthatsheshouldbequiteunconsciousofthe
fact.
"Muchtootakingtobegood,dear,"hadbeentheverdictoftheCommissioner's
wifewhenshehadfirstseenlittlePuckMerryon,themajor'sbride.
But then the Commissioner's wife, Mrs. Paget, was so severely plain in every
waythatperhapsshecouldscarcelyberegardedasanimpartialjudge.Shehad
neverflirtedwithanyone,andcouldnotknowthejoysthereof.


Young Mrs. Merryon, on the other hand, flirted quite openly and very sweetly
witheverymanshemet.Itwasobviouslyhernaturesotodo.Shehaddoubtless
doneitfromhercradle,andwouldprobablycontinuethepracticetohergrave.
"Abornwheedler,"thecolonelcalledher;buthiswifethought"saucyminx"a
moreappropriateterm,andwonderedhowMajorMerryoncouldputupwithher
shamelesstrifling.
Asamatteroffact,Merryonwonderedhimselfsometimes;forsheflirtedwith
him more than all in that charming, provocative way of hers, coaxed him,
laughedathim,brilliantlyeludedhim.Shewouldperchdaintilyonthearmof
hischairwhenhewasbusy,butifhesomuchaslaidahanduponhershewas
goneinaflashlikeawhirlinginsect,nottoreturntillhewastooabsorbedtopay
anyattentiontoher.Andoftenasthosedaringredlipsmockedhim,theywere
never offered to his even in jest. Yet was she so finished a coquette that the
omissionwasneverobvious.Itseemedthemostnaturalthingintheworldthat
sheshouldevadeallapproachtointimacy.Theywerecomrades—justcomrades.
EveryoneinthestationwantedtoknowMerryon'sbride.Peoplehadbegunby
being distant, but that phase was long past. Puck Merryon had stormed the
citadelwithinafortnightofherarrival,noonequiteknewhow.Everyoneknew
her now. She went everywhere, though never without her husband, who found
himselfdraggedintogaietiesforwhichhehadscantliking,andsoughtafterby
peoplewhohadneverseemedawareofhimbefore.Shehad,inshort,become
therage,andsogailydidsherevelinhertriumphthathecouldnotbringhimself
todenyherthefruitsthereof.
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
dancedeverydance.Dancingseemedheronepassion,andtoMerryon,whodid
notdance,theballhadbeenanunmitigatedweariness.Hehadatlast,insheer
boredom, joined a party of bridge-players, with the result that he had not seen
muchofhisyoungwifethroughouttheevening.
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.
Hecalledagreetingtoher,andsheinstantlyvanishedintoherroom.Hemade
hiswaytothetablesetintheshadeofthecluster-roses,andsatdowntoawait
her.


She remained invisible, but her voice at once accosted him. "Good-morning,
Billikins!Tellthekhityou'reready!Ishallbeoutintwoshakes."
Nonebutshewouldhavedreamedofbestowingsofrivolousanappellationupon
the sober Merryon. But from her it came so naturally that Merryon scarcely
noticedit.Hehadbeen"Billikins"toherthroughoutthebriefthreemonthsthat
had elapsed since their marriage. Of course, Mrs. Paget disapproved, but then
Mrs.PagetwasMrs.Paget.Shedisapprovedofeverythingyoungandgay.
Merryon gave the required order, and then sat in stolid patience to await his
wife'scoming.Shedidnotkeephimlong.Verysoonshecamelightlyoutand
joinedhim,animpudentsmileonhersallowlittleface,dancingmerrimentinher
eyes.
"Oh,pooroldBillikins!"shesaid,commiseratingly."Youwereboredlastnight,
weren'tyou?IwonderifIcouldteachyoutodance."
"Iwonder,"saidMerryon.
Hiseyesdweltuponherinherfreshwhitemuslin.Whatachildshelooked!Not
pretty—no,notpretty;butwhatamagicsmileshehad!
Shesatdownatthetablefacinghim,andleanedherelbowsuponit."Iwonderif
Icould!"shesaidagain,andthenbrokeintohersuddenlaugh.
"What'sthejoke?"askedMerryon.
"Oh,nothing!"shesaid,recoveringherself."Itsuddenlycameoverme,that'sall
—pooroldMotherPaget'sface,supposingshehadseenmelastnight."
"Didn't she see you last night? I thought you were more or less in the public
eye,"saidMerryon.
"Oh,Imeantafterthedance,"sheexplained."Ifeltsortofwoundupandexcited
afterIgotback.AndIwantedtoseeifIcouldstilldoit.I'mgladtosayIcan,"
sheended,withanotherlittlelaugh.
Herdarkeyesshothimatentativeglance."Canwhat?"askedMerryon.
"You'llbeshockedifItellyou."
"Whatwasit?"hesaid.
There was insistence in his tone—the insistence by which he had once


compelledhertoliveagainstherwill.Hereyelidsflutteredalittleasitreached
her,butshecockedhersmall,pointedchinnotwithstanding.
"WhyshouldItellyouifIdon'twantto?"shedemanded.
"Whyshouldn'tyouwantto?"hesaid.
Thetipofhertongueshotoutandinagain."Well,younevertookmeforalady,
didyou?"shesaid,half-defiantly.
"Whatwasit?"repeatedMerryon,stickingtothepoint.
Againshegrimacedathim,butsheanswered,"Oh,Ionly—afterI'dhadmybath
—layonthefloorandranroundmyheadforabit.It'snotabitdifficult,once
you'vegottheknack.ButIgotthinkingofMrs.Paget—shedoesamuseme,that
woman. Only yesterday she asked me what Puck was short for, and I told her
Elizabeth—andthenIgotlaughingsothatIhadtostop."
Her face was flushed, and she was slightly breathless as she ended, but she
staredacrossthetablewithbrazendetermination,likeanaughtychildexpecting
aslap.
Merryon's face, however, betrayed neither astonishment nor disapproval. He
evensmiledalittleashesaid,"Perhapsyouwouldliketogivemelessonsinthat
also?I'veoftenwonderedhowitwasdone."
Shesmiledbackathimwithinstantandobviousrelief.
"No,Ishan'tdoitagain.It'snotproper.ButIwillteachyoutodance.I'dsooner
dancewithyouthananyof'em."
It was naïvely spoken, so naïvely that Merryon's faint smile turned into
somethingthatwasalmostgenial.Whatayoungstershewas!Herfreshnesswas
aperpetualsourceofwondertohimwhenherememberedwhenceshehadcome
tohim.
"Iamquitewillingtobetaught,"hesaid."Butitmustbeinstrictprivacy."
Shenoddedgaily.
"Of course. You shall have a lesson to-night—when we get back from the
Burtons'dinner.I'mrealsorryyouwerebored,Billikins.Youshan'tbeagain."
Thatwasherattitudealways,half-maternal,half-quizzing,asifsomethingabout


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