Chapter XII. Freedom
 

It took him many days to climb back up that slope down which he had slipped so swiftly in those few awful hours. Very slowly, with painful effort, but with unfailing purpose, he made his arduous way. And through it all Puck never left his side.

Alert and vigilant, very full of courage, very quick of understanding, she drew him, leaning on her, back to a life that had become strangely new to them both. They talked very little, for Merryon's strength was terribly low, and Macfarlane, still scarcely believing in the miracle that had been wrought under his eyes, forbade all but the simplest and briefest speech--a prohibition which Puck strenuously observed; for Puck, though she knew the miracle for an accomplished fact, was not taking any chances.

"Presently, darling; when you're stronger," was her invariable answer to any attempt on his part to elicit information as to the events that had immediately preceded his seizure. "There's nothing left to fret about. You're here--and I'm here. And that's all that matters."

If her lips quivered a little over the last assertion, she turned her head away that he might not see. For she was persistently cheery in his presence, full of tender humour, always undismayed.

He leaned upon her instinctively. She propped him so sturdily, with a strength so amazing and so steadfast. Sometimes she laughed softly at his weakness, as a mother might laugh at the first puny efforts of her baby to stand alone. And he knew that she loved his dependence upon her, even in a sense dreaded the time when his own strength should reassert itself, making hers weak by comparison.

But that time was coming, slowly yet very surely. The rains were lessening at last, and the cholera-fiend had been driven forth. Merryon was to go to the Hills on sick leave for several weeks. Colonel Davenant had awaked to the fact that his life was a valuable one, and his admiration for Mrs. Merryon was undisguised. He did not altogether understand her behaviour, but he was discreet enough not to seek that enlightenment which only one man in the world was ever to receive.

To that man on the night before their departure came Puck, very pale and resolute, with shining, unwavering eyes. She knelt down before him with small hands tightly clasped.

"I'm going to say something dreadful, Billikins," she said.

He looked at her for a moment or two in silence.

Then, "I know what you are going to say," he said.

She shook her head. "Oh, no, you don't, darling. It's something that'll make you frightfully angry."

The faintest gleam of a smile crossed Merryon's face. "With you?" he said.

She nodded, and suddenly her eyes were brimming with tears. "Yes, with me."

He put his hand on her shoulder. "I tell you, I know what it is," he said, with a certain stubbornness.

She turned her cheek for a moment to caress the hand; then suddenly all her strength went from her. She sank down on the floor at his feet, huddled together in a woeful heap, just as she had been on that first night when the safety-curtain had dropped behind her.

"You'll never forgive me!" she sobbed. "But I knew--I knew--I always knew!"

"Knew what, child?" He was stooping over her. His hand, trembling still with weakness, was on her head. "But, no, don't tell me!" he said, and his voice was deeply tender. "The fellow is dead, isn't he?"

"Oh, yes, he's dead." Quiveringly, between piteous sobs, she answered him. "He--was dying before I reached him--that dreadful night. He just--had strength left--to curse me! And I am cursed! I am cursed!"

She flung out her arms wildly, clasping his feet.

He stooped lower over her. "Hush--hush!" he said.

She did not seem to hear. "I let you take me--I stained your honour--I wasn't a free woman. I tried to think I was; but in my heart--I always knew--I always knew! I wouldn't have your love at first--because I knew. And I came to you--that monsoon night--chiefly because--I wanted--when he came after me--as I knew he would come--to force him--to set me--free."

Through bitter sobbing the confession came; in bitter sobbing it ended.

But still Merryon's hand was on her head, still his face was bent above her, grave and sad and pitiful, the face of a strong man enduring grief.

After a little, haltingly, she spoke again. "And I wasn't coming back to you--ever. Only--someone--a syce--told me you had been stricken down. And then I had to come. I couldn't leave you to die. That's all--that's all! I'm going now. And I shan't come back. I'm not--your wife. You're quite, quite free. And I'll never--bring shame on you--again."

Her straining hands tightened. She kissed, the feet she clasped. "I'm a wicked, wicked woman," she said. "I was born--on the wrong side--of the safety-curtain. That's no--excuse; only--to make you understand."

She would have withdrawn herself then, but his hands held her. She covered her face, kneeling between them.

"Why do you want me to understand?" he said, his voice very low.

She quivered at the question, making no attempt to answer, just weeping silently there in his hold.

He leaned towards her, albeit he was trembling with weakness. "Puck, listen!" he said. "I do understand."

She caught her breath and became quite still.

"Listen again!" he said. "What is done--is done; and nothing can alter it. But--your future is mine. You have forfeited the right to leave me."

She uncovered her face in a flash to gaze at him as one confounded.

He met the look with eyes that held her own. "I say it," he said. "You have forfeited the right. You say I am free. Am I free?"

She nodded, still with her eyes on his. "I have--no claim on you," she whispered, brokenly.

His hands tightened; he brought her nearer to him. "And when that dream of yours comes true," he said, "what then? What then?"

Her face quivered painfully at the question. She swallowed once or twice spasmodically, like a hurt child trying not to cry.

"That's--nobody's business but mine," she said.

A very curious smile drew Merryon's mouth. "I thought I had had something to do with it," he said. "I think I am entitled to part-ownership, anyway."

She shook her head, albeit she was very close to his breast. "You're not, Billikins!" she declared, with vehemence. "You only say that--out of pity. And I don't want pity. I--I'd rather you hated me than that! Miles rather!"

His arms went round her. He uttered a queer, passionate laugh and drew her to his heart. "And what if I offer you--love?" he said. "Have you no use for that either, my wife--my wife?"

She turned and clung to him, clung fast and desperately, as a drowning person clings to a spar. "But I'm not, Billikins! I'm not!" she whispered, with her face hidden.

"You shall be," he made steadfast answer. "Before God you shall be."

"Ah, do you believe in God?" she murmured.

"I do," he said, firmly.

She gave a little sob. "Oh, Billikins, so do I. At least, I think I do; but I'm half afraid, even now, though I did try to do--the right thing. I shall only know for certain--when the dream comes true." Her face came upwards, her lips moved softly against his neck. "Darling," she whispered, "don't you hope--it'll be--a boy?"

He bent his head mutely. Somehow speech was difficult.

But Puck was not wanting speech of him just then. She turned her red lips to his. "But even if it's a girl, darling, it won't matter, for she'll be born on the right side of the safety-curtain now, thanks to your goodness, your generosity."

He stopped her sharply. "Puck! Puck!"

Their lips met. Puck was sobbing a little and smiling at the same time.

"Your love is the safety-curtain, Billikins darling," she whispered, softly. "And I'm going to thank God for it--every day of my life."

"My darling!" he said. "My wife!"

Her eyes shone up to his through tears. "Oh, do you realize," she said," that we have risen from the dead?"