The Safety Curtain by Ethel M. Dell
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?"
He raised his brows momentarily. Then: "Would you come?" he asked, with a certain roughness, as though he suspected her of trifling.
She raised her eyes suddenly, kindled and eager. "Would I come!" she said, in a tone that said more than words.
"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, boyish figure, the active, supple limbs. Her breathing came through parted lips.
"As your--your servant--your valet?" she panted.
His rough brows drew together. "My what? Good heavens, no! I could only take you in one capacity."
She started back from his hand. For a moment sheer horror looked out from her eyes. Then, almost in the same instant, they were veiled. She caught her breath, saying no word, only dumbly waiting.
"I could only take you as my wife," he said, still in that half-bantering, half-embarrassed fashion of his. "Will you come?"
She threw back her head and stared at him. "Marry you! What, really? Really?" she questioned, breathlessly.
"Merely for appearances' sake," said Merryon, with grim irony. "The regimental morals are somewhat easily offended, and an outsider like myself can't be too careful."
The girl was still staring at him, as though at some novel specimen of humanity that had never before crossed her path. Suddenly she leaned towards him, looking him full and straight in the eyes.
"What would you do if I said 'Yes'?" she questioned, in a small, tense whisper.
He looked back at her, half-interested, half amused. "Do, urchin? Why, marry you!" he said.
"Really marry me?" she urged. "Not make-believe?"
He stiffened at that. "Do you know what you're saying?" he demanded, 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. "But you can't be in earnest!" she said.
"I am in earnest." He raised his face to her with a certain doggedness, as though challenging her to detect in it aught but honesty. "I may be several kinds of a fool," he said, "but I am in earnest. I'm no great catch, but I'll marry you if you'll have me. I'll protect you, and I'll be good to you. I can't promise to make you happy, of course, but--anyway, I shan't make you miserable."
"But--but--" She still stood before him as though hovering on the edge of flight. Her lips were trembling, her whole form quivering and scintillating in the lamplight. She halted on the words as if uncertain how to proceed.
"What is it?" said Merryon.
And then, quite suddenly, his mood softened. He leaned slowly forward.
"You needn't be afraid of me," he said. "I'm not a heady youngster. I shan't gobble you up."
She laughed at that--a quick, nervous laugh. "And you won't beat me either? Promise!"
He frowned at her. "Beat you! I?"
She nodded several times, faintly smiling. "Yes, you, Mr. Monster! I'm sure you could."
He smiled also, somewhat grimly. "You're wrong, madam. I couldn't beat a child."
"Oh, my!" she said, and threw up her arms with a quivering laugh, dropping his coat in a heap on the floor. "How old do you think this child is?" she questioned, glancing down at him in her sidelong, speculative fashion.
He looked at her hard and straight, looked at the slim young body in its sheath of iridescent green that shimmered with every breath she drew, and very suddenly he rose.
She made a spring backwards, but she was too late. He caught and held her.
"Let me go!" she cried, her face crimson.
"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're not a brute, are you?" she questioned, breathlessly. "You--you'll be good to me? You said so!"
He surveyed her grimly. "Yes, I will be good to you," he said. "But I'm not going to be fooled. Understand? If you marry me, you must play the part. I don't know how old you are. I don't greatly care. All I do care about is that you behave yourself as the wife of a man in my position should. You're old enough to know what that means, I suppose?"
He spoke impressively, but the effect of his words was not quite what he expected. The point of a very red tongue came suddenly from between the red lips, and instantly disappeared.
"That all?" she said. "Oh yes; I think I can do that. I'll try, anyway. And if you're not satisfied--well, you'll have to let me know. See?
Now let me go, there's a good man! I don't like the feel of your hands."
He let her go in answer to the pleading of her eyes, and she slipped from his grasp like an eel, caught up the coat at her feet, and wriggled into it.
Then, impishly, she faced him, buttoning it with nimble fingers the while. "This is the garment of respectability," she declared. "It isn't much of a fit, is it? But I shall grow to it in time. Do you know, I believe I'm going to like being your wife?"
"Why?" said Merryon.
She laughed--that laugh of irrepressible gaiety that had surprised him before.
"Oh, just because I shall so love fighting your battles for you," she said. "It'll be grand sport."
"Think so?" said Merryon.
"Oh, you bet!" said the Dragon-Fly, with gay confidence. "Men never know how to fight. They're poor things--men!"
He himself laughed at that--his grim, grudging laugh. "It's a world of fools, Puck," he said.
"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, "to have risen from the dead."