Chapter XI. The Sacred Fire
 

"Well? Is she all right?" Almost angrily the colonel flung the question as his second-in-command came back heavy-footed through the rain. He had been through a nasty period of suspense himself during Merryon's absence.

Merryon nodded. His face was very pale and his lips seemed stiff.

"She has--gone, sir," he managed to say, after a moment.

"Gone, has she?" The colonel raised his brows in astonished interrogation. "What! Taken fright at last? Well, best thing she could do, all things considered. You ought to be very thankful."

He dismissed the subject for more pressing matters, and he never noticed the awful whiteness of Merryon's face or the deadly fixity of his look.

Macfarlane noticed both, coming up two hours later to report the death of one of the officers at the bungalow.

"For Heaven's sake, man, have some brandy!" he said, proffering a flask of his own. "You're looking pretty unhealthy. What is it? Feeling a bit off, eh?"

He held Merryon's wrist while he drank the brandy, regarding him with a troubled frown the while.

"What is the matter with you, man?" he said. "You're not frightening yourself? You wouldn't be such a fool!"

Merryon did not answer. He was never voluble. To-day he seemed tongue-tied.

Macfarlane continued with an uneasy effort to hide a certain doubt stirring in his mind. "I hear there was a European died at the dak-bungalow early this morning. I wanted to go round and see, but I haven't been able. It's fairly widespread, but there's no sense in getting scared. Halloa, Merryon!"

He broke off, staring. Merryon had given a great start. He looked like a man stabbed suddenly from a dream to full consciousness.

"A European--at the dak-bungalow--dead, did you say?"

His words tumbled over each other; he gripped Macfarlane's shoulder and shook it with fierce impatience.

"So I heard. I don't know any details. How should I? Merryon, are you mad?" Macfarlane put up a quick hand to free himself, for the grip was painful. "He wasn't a friend of yours, I suppose? He wouldn't have been putting up there if he had been."

"No, no; not--a friend." The words came jerkily. Merryon was breathing in great spasms that shook him from head to foot. "Not--a friend!" he said again, and stopped, gazing before him with eyes curiously contracted as the eyes of one striving to discern something a long way off.

Macfarlane slipped a hand under his elbow. "Look here," he said, "you must have a rest. You can be spared for a bit now. Walk back with me to the hospital, and we will see how things are going there."

His hand closed urgently. He began to draw him away.

Merryon's eyes came back as it were out of space, and gave him a quick side-glance that was like the turn of a rapier. "I must go down to the dak-bungalow," he said, with decision.

Swift protest rose to the doctor's lips, but it died there. He tightened his hold instead, and went with him.

The colonel looked round sharply at their approach, looked--and swore under his breath. "Yes, all right, major, you'd better go," he said. "Good-bye."

Merryon essayed a grim smile, but his ashen face only twisted convulsively, showing his set teeth. He hung on Macfarlane's shoulder while the first black cloud of agony possessed him and slowly passed.

Then, white and shaking, he stood up. "I'll get round to the dak now, before I'm any worse. Don't come with me, Macfarlane! I'll take an orderly."

"I'm coming," said Macfarlane, stoutly.

But they did not get to the dak-bungalow, or anywhere near it. Before they had covered twenty yards another frightful spasm of pain came upon Merryon, racking his whole being, depriving him of all his powers, wresting from him every faculty save that of suffering. He went down into a darkness that swallowed him, soul and body, blotting out all finite things, loosening his frantic clutch on life, sucking him down as it were into a frightful emptiness, where his only certainty of existence lay in the excruciating agonies that tore and convulsed him like devils in some inferno under the earth.

Of time and place and circumstance thereafter he became as completely unconscious as though they had ceased to be, though once or twice he was aware of a merciful hand that gave him opium to deaden--or was it only to prolong?--his suffering. And aeons and eternities passed over him while he lay in the rigour of perpetual torments, not trying to escape, only writhing in futile anguish in the bitter dark of the prison-house.

Later, very much later, there came a time when the torture gradually ceased or became merged in a deathly coldness. During that stage his understanding began to come back to him like the light of a dying day. A vague and dreadful sense of loss began to oppress him, a feeling of nakedness as though the soul of him were already slipping free, passing into an appalling void, leaving an appalling void behind. He lay quite helpless and sinking, sinking--slowly, terribly sinking into an overwhelming sea of annihilation.

With all that was left of his failing strength he strove to cling to that dim light which he knew for his own individuality. The silence and the darkness broke over him in long, soundless waves; but each time he emerged again, cold, cold as death, but still aware of self, aware of existence, albeit the world he knew had dwindled to an infinitesimal smallness, as an object very far away, and floating ever farther and farther from his ken.

Vague paroxysms of pain still seized him from time to time, but they no longer affected him in the same way. The body alone agonized. The soul stood apart on the edge of that dreadful sea, shrinking afraid from the black, black depths and the cruel cold of the eternal night. He was terribly, crushingly alone.

Someone had once, twice, asked him a vital question about his belief in God. Then he had been warmly alive. He had held his wife close in his arms, and nothing else had mattered. But now--but now--he was very far from warmth and life. He was dying in loneliness. He was perishing in the outer dark, where no hand might reach and no voice console. He had believed--or thought he believed--in God. But now his faith was wearing very thin. Very soon it would crumble quite away, just as he himself was crumbling into the dreadful silence of the ages. His life--the brief passion called life--was over. Out of the dark it had come; into the dark it went. And no one to care--no one to cry farewell to him across that desolation of emptiness that was death! No one to kneel beside him and pray for light in that awful, all-encompassing dark!

Stay! Something had touched him even then. Or was it but his dying fancy? Red lips he had kissed and that had kissed him in return, eager arms that had clung and clung, eyes of burning adoration! Did they truly belong all to the past? Or were they here beside him even now--even now? Had he wandered backwards perchance into that strange, sweet heaven of love from which he had been so suddenly and terribly cast out? Ah, how he had loved her! How he had loved her! Very faintly there began to stir within him the old fiery longing that she, and she alone, had ever waked within him. He would worship her to the last flicker of his dying soul. But the darkness was spreading, spreading, like a yawning of a great gulf at his feet. Already he was slipping over the edge. The light was fading out of his sky.

It was the last dim instinct of nature that made him reach out a groping hand, and with lips that would scarcely move to whisper, "Puck!"

He did not expect an answer. The things of earth were done with. His life was passing swiftly, swiftly, like the sands running out of a glass. He had lost her already, and the world had sunk away, away, with all warmth and light and love.

Yet out of the darkness all suddenly there came a voice, eager, passionate, persistent. "I am here, Billikins! I am here! Come back to me, darling! Come back!"

He started at that voice, started and paused, holding back as it were on the very verge of the precipice. So she was there indeed! He could hear her sobbing breath. There came to him the consciousness of her hands clasping his, and the faintest, vaguest glow went through his ice-cold body. He tried, piteously weak as he was, to bend his fingers about hers.

And then there came the warmth of her lips upon them, kissing them with a fierce passion of tenderness, drawing them close as if to breathe her own vitality into his failing pulses.

"Open your eyes to me, darling!" she besought him. "See how I love you! And see how I want your love! I can't do without it, Billikins. It's my only safeguard. What! He is dead? I say he is not--he is not! Or if he is, he shall rise again. He shall come back. See! He is looking at me! How dare you say he is dead?"

The wild anguish of her voice reached him, pierced him, rousing him as no other power on earth could have roused him. Out of that deathly inertia he drew himself, inch by inch, as out of some clinging swamp. His hand found strength to tighten upon hers. He opened his eyes, leaden-lidded as they were, and saw her face all white and drawn, gazing into his own with such an agony of love, such a consuming fire of worship, that it seemed as if his whole being were drawn by it, warmed, comforted, revived.

She hung above him, fierce in her devotion, driving back the destroyer by the sheer burning intensity of her love. "You shan't die, Billikins!" she told him, passionately. "You can't die--now I am here!"

She stooped her face to his. He turned his lips instinctively to meet it, and suddenly it was as though a flame had kindled between them--hot, ardent, compelling. His dying pulses thrilled to it, his blood ran warmer.

"You--have--come--back!" he said, with slow articulation.

"My darling--my darling!" she made quivering answer. "Say I've come--in time!"

He tried to speak again, but could not. Yet the deathly cold was giving way like ice before the sun. He could feel his heart beating where before he had felt nothing. A hand that was not Puck's came out of the void beyond her and held a spoonful of spirit to his mouth. He swallowed it with difficulty, and was conscious of a greater warmth.

"There, my own boy, my own boy!" she murmured over him. "You're coming back to me. Say you're coming back!"

His lips quivered like a child's. He forced them to answer her. "If you--will--stay," he said.

"I will never leave you again, darling," she made swift answer. "Never, never again! You shall have all that you want--all--all!"

Her arms closed about him. He felt the warmth of her body, the passionate nearness of her soul; and therewith the flame that had kindled between them leaped to a great and burning glow, encompassing them both--the Sacred Fire.

A wonderful sense of comfort came upon him. He turned to her as a man turns to only one woman in all the world, and laid his head upon her breast.

"I only want--my wife," he said.