The Safety Curtain by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter III. 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 sweetmeat on the tiffin-table in the veranda. There were always sweets at tiffin in the major's bungalow. Mrs. Merryon loved sweets. She was wont to say that they were the best remedy for homesickness she knew.
Not that she ever was homesick. At least, no one ever suspected such a possibility, for she had a smile and a quip for all, and her laughter was the gayest in the station. She ran out now, half-dressed, from her bedroom, waving a towel at the marauder.
"That comes of being kind-hearted," she declared, in the deep voice that accorded so curiously with the frothy lightness of her personality. "Everyone takes advantage of it, sure."
Her eyes were grey and Irish, and they flashed over the scene dramatically, albeit there was no one to see and admire. For she was strangely captivating, and perhaps it was hardly to be expected that she should be quite unconscious of the fact.
"Much too taking to be good, dear," had been the verdict of the Commissioner's wife when she had first seen little Puck Merryon, the major's bride.
But then the Commissioner's wife, Mrs. Paget, was so severely plain in every way that perhaps she could scarcely be regarded as an impartial judge. She had never flirted with any one, and could not know the joys thereof.
Young Mrs. Merryon, on the other hand, flirted quite openly and very sweetly with every man she met. It was obviously her nature so to do. She had doubtless done it from her cradle, and would probably continue the practice to her grave.
"A born wheedler," the colonel called her; but his wife thought "saucy minx" a more appropriate term, and wondered how Major Merryon could put up with her shameless trifling.
As a matter of fact, Merryon wondered himself sometimes; for she flirted with him more than all in that charming, provocative way of hers, coaxed him, laughed at him, brilliantly eluded him. She would perch daintily on the arm of his chair when he was busy, but if he so much as laid a hand upon her she was gone in a flash like a whirling insect, not to return till he was too absorbed to pay any attention to her. And often as those daring red lips mocked him, they were never offered to his even in jest. Yet was she so finished a coquette that the omission was never obvious. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that she should evade all approach to intimacy. They were comrades--just comrades.
Everyone in the station wanted to know Merryon's bride. People had begun by being distant, but that phase was long past. Puck Merryon had stormed the citadel within a fortnight of her arrival, no one quite knew how. Everyone knew her now. She went everywhere, though never without her husband, who found himself dragged into gaieties for which he had scant liking, and sought after by people who had never seemed aware of him before. She had, in short, become the rage, and so gaily did she revel in her triumph that he could not bring himself to deny her the fruits thereof.
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 danced every dance. Dancing seemed her one passion, and to Merryon, who did not dance, the ball had been an unmitigated weariness. He had at last, in sheer boredom, joined a party of bridge-players, with the result that he had not seen much of his young wife throughout the evening.
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.
He called a greeting to her, and she instantly vanished into her room. He made his way to the table set in the shade of the cluster-roses, and sat down to await her.
She remained invisible, but her voice at once accosted him. "Good-morning, Billikins! Tell the khit you're ready! I shall be out in two shakes."
None but she would have dreamed of bestowing so frivolous an appellation upon the sober Merryon. But from her it came so naturally that Merryon scarcely noticed it. He had been "Billikins" to her throughout the brief three months that had elapsed since their marriage. Of course, Mrs. Paget disapproved, but then Mrs. Paget was Mrs. Paget. She disapproved of everything young and gay.
Merryon gave the required order, and then sat in stolid patience to await his wife's coming. She did not keep him long. Very soon she came lightly out and joined him, an impudent smile on her sallow little face, dancing merriment in her eyes.
"Oh, poor old Billikins!" she said, commiseratingly. "You were bored last night, weren't you? I wonder if I could teach you to dance."
"I wonder," said Merryon.
His eyes dwelt upon her in her fresh white muslin. What a child she looked! Not pretty--no, not pretty; but what a magic smile she had!
She sat down at the table facing him, and leaned her elbows upon it. "I wonder if I could!" she said again, and then broke into her sudden laugh.
"What's the joke?" asked Merryon.
"Oh, nothing!" she said, recovering herself. "It suddenly came over me, that's all--poor old Mother Paget's face, supposing she had seen me last night."
"Didn't she see you last night? I thought you were more or less in the public eye," said Merryon.
"Oh, I meant after the dance," she explained. "I felt sort of wound up and excited after I got back. And I wanted to see if I could still do it. I'm glad to say I can," she ended, with another little laugh.
Her dark eyes shot him a tentative glance. "Can what?" asked Merryon.
"You'll be shocked if I tell you."
"What was it?" he said.
There was insistence in his tone--the insistence by which he had once compelled her to live against her will. Her eyelids fluttered a little as it reached her, but she cocked her small, pointed chin notwithstanding.
"Why should I tell you if I don't want to?" she demanded.
"Why shouldn't you want to?" he said.
The tip of her tongue shot out and in again. "Well, you never took me for a lady, did you?" she said, half-defiantly.
"What was it?" repeated Merryon, sticking to the point.
Again she grimaced at him, but she answered, "Oh, I only--after I'd had my bath--lay on the floor and ran round my head for a bit. It's not a bit difficult, once you've got the knack. But I got thinking of Mrs. Paget--she does amuse me, that woman. Only yesterday she asked me what Puck was short for, and I told her Elizabeth--and then I got laughing so that I had to stop."
Her face was flushed, and she was slightly breathless as she ended, but she stared across the table with brazen determination, like a naughty child expecting a slap.
Merryon's face, however, betrayed neither astonishment nor disapproval. He even smiled a little as he said, "Perhaps you would like to give me lessons in that also? I've often wondered how it was done."
She smiled back at him with instant and obvious relief.
"No, I shan't do it again. It's not proper. But I will teach you to dance. I'd sooner dance with you than any of 'em."
It was naively spoken, so naively that Merryon's faint smile turned into something that was almost genial. What a youngster she was! Her freshness was a perpetual source of wonder to him when he remembered whence she had come to him.
"I am quite willing to be taught," he said. "But it must be in strict privacy."
She nodded gaily.
"Of course. You shall have a lesson to-night--when we get back from the Burtons' dinner. I'm real sorry you were bored, Billikins. You shan't be again."
That was her attitude always, half-maternal, half-quizzing, as if something about him amused her; yet always anxious to please him, always ready to set his wishes before her own, so long as he did not attempt to treat her seriously. She had left all that was serious in that other life that had ended with the fall of the safety-curtain on a certain night in England many aeons ago. Her personality now was light as gossamer, irresponsible as thistledown. The deeper things of life passed her by. She seemed wholly unaware of them.
"You'll be quite an accomplished dancer by the time everyone comes back from the Hills," she remarked, balancing a fork on one slender brown finger. "We'll have a ball for two--every night."
"We!" said Merryon.
She glanced at him.
"I said 'we.'"
"I know you did." The man's voice had suddenly a dogged ring; he looked across at the vivid, piquant face with the suggestion of a frown between his eyes.
"Don't do that!" she said, lightly. "Never do that, Billikins! It's most unbecoming behaviour. What's the matter?"
"The matter?" he said, slowly. "The matter is that you are going to the Hills for the hot weather with the rest of the women, Puck. I can't keep you here."
She made a rude face at him.
"Preserve me from any cattery in the Hills!" she said. "I'm going to stay with you."
"You can't," said Merryon.
"I can," she said.
He frowned still more.
"Not if I say otherwise, Puck."
She snapped her fingers at him and laughed.
"I am in earnest," Merryon said. "I can't keep you here for the hot weather. It would probably kill you."
"What of that?" she said.
He ignored her frivolity.
"It can't be done," he said. "So you must make the best of it."
"Meaning you don't want me?" she demanded, unexpectedly.
"Not for the hot weather," said Merryon.
She sprang suddenly to her feet.
"I won't go, Billikins!" she declared, fiercely, "I just won't!"
He looked at her, sternly resolute.
"You must go," he said, with unwavering decision.
"You're tired of me! Is that it?" she demanded.
He raised his brows. "You haven't given me much opportunity to be that, have you?" he said.
A great wave of colour went over her face. She put up her hand as though instinctively to shield it.
"I've done my best to--to--to--" She stopped, became piteously silent, and suddenly he saw that she was crying behind the sheltering hand.
He softened almost in spite of himself.
"Come here, Puck!" he said.
She shook her head dumbly.
"Come here!" he repeated.
She came towards him slowly, as if against her will. He reached forward, still seated, and drew her to him.
She trembled at his touch, trembled and started away, yet in the end she yielded.
"Please," she whispered; "please!"
He put his arm round her very gently, yet with determination, making her stand beside him.
"Why don't you want to go to the Hills?" he said.
"I'd be frightened," she murmured.
"I don't know," she said, vaguely.
"Yes, but you do know. You must know.
Tell me." He spoke gently, but the stubborn note was in his voice and his hold was insistent. "Leave off crying and tell me!"
"I'm not crying," said Puck.
She uncovered her face and looked down at him through tears with a faintly mischievous smile.
"Tell me!" he reiterated. "Is it because you don't like the idea of leaving me?"
Her smile flashed full out upon him on the instant.
"Goodness, no! Whatever made you think that?" she demanded, briskly.
He was momentarily disconcerted, but he recovered himself at once.
"Then what is your objection to going?" he asked.
She turned and sat down conversationally on the corner of the table.
"Well, you know, Billikins, it's like this. When I married you--I did it out of pity. See? I was sorry for you. You seemed such a poor, helpless sort of creature. And I thought being married to me might help to improve your position a bit. You see my point, Billikins?"
"Oh, quite," he said. "Please go on!"
She went on, with butterfly gaiety.
"I worked hard--really hard--to get you out of your bog. It was a horrid deep one, wasn't it, Billikins? My! You were floundering! But I've pulled you out of it and dragged you up the bank a bit. You don't get sniffed at anything like you used, do you, Billikins? But I daren't leave you yet--I honestly daren't. You'd slip right back again directly my back was turned. And I should have the pleasure of starting the business all over again. I couldn't face it, my dear. It would be too disheartening."
"I see," said Merryon. There was just the suspicion of a smile among the rugged lines of his face. "Yes, I see your point. But I can show you another if you'll listen."
He was holding her two hands as she sat, as though he feared an attempt to escape. For though Puck sat quite still, it was with the stillness of a trapped creature that waits upon opportunity.
"Will you listen?" he said.
It was not an encouraging nod, but he proceeded.
"All the women go to the Hills for the hot weather. It's unspeakable here. No white woman could stand it. And we men get leave by turns to join them. There is nothing doing down here, no social round whatever. It's just stark duty. I can't lose much social status that way. It will serve my turn much better if you go up with the other women and continue to hold your own there. Not that I care a rap," he added, with masculine tactlessness. "I am no longer susceptible to snubs."
"Then I shan't go," she said at once, beginning to swing a restless foot.
"Yes, but you will go," he said. "I wish it."
"You want to get rid of me," said Puck, looking over his head with the eyes of a troubled child.
Merryon was silent. He was watching her with a kind of speculative curiosity. His hands were still locked upon hers.
Slowly her eyes came down to his.
"Billikins," she said, "let me stay down for a little!" Her lips were quivering. She kicked his chair agitatedly. "I don't want to go," she said, dismally. "Let me stay--anyhow--till I get ill!"
"No," Merryon said. "It can't be done, child. I can't risk that. Besides, there'd be no one to look after you."
She slipped to her feet in a flare of indignation. "You're a pig, Billikins! You're a pig!" she cried, and tore her hands free. "I've a good mind to run away from you and never come back. It's what you deserve, and what you'll get, if you aren't careful!"
She was gone with the words--gone like a flashing insect disturbing the silence for a moment, and leaving a deeper silence behind.
Merryon looked after her for a second or two, and then philosophically continued his meal. But the slight frown remained between his brows. The veranda seemed empty and colourless now that she was gone.