The Safety Curtain by Ethel M. Dell
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.