The Safety Curtain by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter IV. Friends
The Burtons' dinner-party was a very cheerful affair. The Burtons were young and newly married, and they liked to gather round them all the youth and gaiety of the station. It was for that reason that Puck's presence had been secured, for she was the life of every gathering; and her husband had been included in the invitation simply and solely because from the very outset she had refused to go anywhere without him. It was the only item of her behaviour of which worthy Mrs. Paget could conscientiously approve.
As a matter of fact Merryon had not the smallest desire to go, but he would not say so; and all through the evening he sat and watched his young wife with a curious hunger at his heart. He hated to think that he had hurt her.
There was no sign of depression about Puck, however, and he alone noticed that she never once glanced in his direction. She kept everyone up to a pitch of frivolity that certainly none would have attained without her, and an odd feeling began to stir in Merryon, a sensation of jealousy such as he had never before experienced. They seemed to forget, all of them, that this flashing, brilliant creature was his.
She seemed to have forgotten it also. Or was it only that deep-seated, inimitable coquetry of hers that prompted her thus to ignore him?
He could not decide; but throughout the evening the determination grew in him to make this one point clear to her. Trifle as she might, she must be made to understand that she belonged to him, and him alone. Comrades they might be, but he held a vested right in her, whether he chose to assert it or not.
They returned at length to their little gimcrack bungalow--the Match-box, as Puck called it--on foot under a blaze of stars. The distance was not great, and Puck despised rickshaws.
She flitted by his side in her airy way, chatting inconsequently, not troubling about response, as elusive as a fairy and--the man felt it in the rising fever of his veins--as maddeningly attractive.
They reached the bungalow. She went up the steps to the rose-twined veranda as though she floated on wings of gossamer. "The roses are all asleep, Billikins," she said. "They look like alabaster, don't they?"
She caught a cluster to her and held it against her cheek for a moment.
Merryon was close behind her. She seemed to realize his nearness quite suddenly, for she let the flowers go abruptly and flitted on.
He followed her till, at the farther end of the veranda, she turned and faced him. "Good-night, Billikins," she said, lightly.
"What about that dancing-lesson?" he said.
She threw up her arms above her head with a curious gesture. They gleamed transparently white in the starlight. Her eyes shone like fire-flies.
"I thought you preferred dancing by yourself," she retorted.
"Why?" he said.
She laughed a soft, provocative laugh, and suddenly, without any warning, the cloak had fallen from her shoulders and she was dancing. There in the starlight, white-robed and wonderful, she danced as, it seemed to the man's fascinated senses, no human had ever danced before. She was like a white flame--a darting, fiery essence, soundless, all-absorbing, all-entrancing.
He watched her with pent breath, bound by the magic of her, caught, as it were, into the innermost circle of her being, burning in answer to her fire, yet so curiously enthralled as to be scarcely aware of the ever-mounting, ever-spreading heat. She was like a mocking spirit, a will-o'-the-wisp, luring him, luring him--whither?
The dance quickened, became a passionate whirl, so that suddenly he seemed to see a bright-winged insect caught in an endless web and battling for freedom. He almost saw the silvery strands of that web floating like gossamer in the starlight.
And then, with well-nigh miraculous suddenness, the struggle was over and the insect had darted free. He saw her flash away, and found the veranda empty.
Her cloak lay at his feet. He stooped with an odd sense of giddiness and picked it up. A fragrance of roses came to him with the touch of it, and for an instant he caught it up to his face. The sweetness seemed to intoxicate him.
There came a light, inconsequent laugh; sharply he turned. She had opened the window of his smoking-den and was standing in the entrance with impudent merriment in her eyes. There was triumph also in her pose--a triumph that sent a swirl of hot passion through him. He flung aside the cloak and strode towards her.
But she was gone on the instant, gone with a tinkle of maddening laughter. He blundered into the darkness of an empty room. But he was not the man to suffer defeat tamely. Momentarily baffled, he paused to light a lamp; then went from room to room of the little bungalow, locking each door that she might not elude him a second time. His blood was on fire, and he meant to find her.
In the end he came upon her wholly unexpectedly, standing on the veranda amongst the twining roses. She seemed to be awaiting him, though she made no movement towards him as he approached.
"Good-night, Billikins," she said, her voice very small and humble.
He came to her without haste, realizing that she had given the game into his hands. She did not shrink from him, but she raised an appealing face. And oddly the man's heart smote him. She looked so pathetically small and childish standing there.
But the blood was still running fiercely in his veins, and that momentary twinge did not cool him. Child she might be, but she had played with fire, and she alone was responsible for the conflagration that she had started.
He drew near to her; he took her, unresisting, into his arms.
She cowered down, hiding her face away from him. "Don't, Billikins! Please--please, Billikins!" she begged, incoherently. "You promised--you promised--"
"What did I promise?" he said.
"That you wouldn't--wouldn't"--she spoke breathlessly, for his hold was tightening upon her--"gobble me up," she ended, with a painful little laugh.
"I see." Merryon's voice was deep and low. "And you meantime are at liberty to play any fool game you like with me. Is that it?"
She was quivering from head to foot. She did not lift her face. "It wasn't--a fool game," she protested. "I did it because--because--you were so horrid this morning, so--so cold-blooded. And I--and I--wanted to see if--I could make you care."
"Make me care!" Merryon said the words over oddly to himself; and then, still fast holding her, he began to feel for the face that was so strenuously hidden from him.
She resisted him desperately. "Let me go!" she begged, piteously. "I'll be so good, Billikins. I'll go to the Hills. I'll do anything you like. Only let me go now! Billikins!"
She cried out sharply, for he had overcome her resistance by quiet force, had turned her white face up to his own.
"I am not cold-blooded to-night, Puck," he said. "Whatever you are--child or woman--gutter-snipe or angel--you are mine, all mine. And--I want you!"
The deep note vibrated in his voice; he stooped over her.
But she flung herself back over his arm, striving desperately to avoid him. "No--no--no!" she cried, wildly. "You mustn't, Billikins! Don't kiss me! Don't kiss me!"
She threw up a desperate hand, covering his mouth. "Don't--oh, don't!" she entreated, brokenly.
But the fire she had kindled she was powerless to quench. He would not be frustrated. He caught her hand away. He held her to his heart. He kissed the red lips hotly, with the savage freedom of a nature long restrained.
"Who has a greater right?" he said, with fiery exultation.
She did not answer him. But at the first touch of his lips upon her own she resisted no longer, only broke into agonized tears.
And suddenly Merryon came to himself--was furiously, overwhelmingly ashamed.
"God forgive me!" he said, and let her go.
She tottered a little, covering her face with her hands, sobbing like a hurt child. But she did not try to run away.
He flung round upon his heel and paced the veranda in fierce discomfort. Beast that he was--brute beast to have hurt her so! That piteous sobbing was more than he could bear.
Suddenly he turned back to her, came and stood beside her. "Puck--Puck, child!" he said.
His voice was soft and very urgent. He touched the bent, dark head with a hesitating caress.
She started away from him with a gasp of dismay; but he checked her.
"No, don't!" he said. "It's all right, dear. I'm not such a brute as I seem. Don't be afraid of me!"
There was more of pleading in his voice than he knew. She raised her head suddenly, and looked at him as if puzzled.
He pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed her wet cheeks with clumsy tenderness. "It's all right," he said again. "Don't cry! I hate to see you cry."
She gazed at him, still doubtful, still sobbing a little. "Oh, Billikins!" she said, tremulously, "why did you?"
"I don't know," he said. "I was mad. It was your own fault, in a way. You don't seem to realize that I'm as human as the rest of the world. But I don't defend myself. I was an infernal brute to let myself go like that."
"Oh, no, you weren't, Billikins!" Quite unexpectedly she answered him. "You couldn't help it. Men are like that. And I'm glad you're human. But--but"--she faltered a little--"I want to feel that you're safe, too. I've always felt--ever since I jumped into your arms that night--that you--that you were on the right side of the safety-curtain. You are, aren't you? Oh, please say you are! But I know you are." She held out her hands to him with a quivering gesture of confidence. "If you'll forgive me for--for fooling you," she said, "I'll forgive you--for being fooled. That's a fair offer, isn't it? Don't let's think any more about it!" Her rainbow smile transformed her face, but her eyes sought his anxiously.
He took the hands, but he did not attempt to draw her nearer. "Puck!" he said.
"What is it?" she whispered, trembling.
"Don't!" he said. "I won't hurt you. I wouldn't hurt a hair of your head. But, child, wouldn't it be safer--easier for both of us--if--if we lived together, instead of apart?"
He spoke almost under his breath. There was no hint of mastery about him at that moment, only a gentleness that pleaded with her as with a frightened child.
And Puck went nearer to him on the instant, as it were instinctively, almost involuntarily. "P'r'aps some day, Billikins!" she said, with a little, quivering laugh. "But not yet--not if I've got to go to the Hills away from you."
"When I follow you to the Hills, then," he said.
She freed one hand and, reaching up, lightly stroked his cheek. "P'r'aps, Billikins!" she said again. "But--you'll have to be awfully patient with me, because--because--" She paused, agitatedly; then went yet a little nearer to him. "You will be kind to me, won't you?" she pleaded.
He put his arm about her. "Always, dear," he said.
She raised her face. She was still trembling, but her action was one of resolute confidence. "Then let's be friends, Billikins!" she said.
It was a tacit invitation. He bent and gravely kissed her.
Her lips returned his kiss shyly, quiveringly. "You're the nicest man I ever met, Billikins," she said. "Good-night!"
She slipped from his encircling arm and was gone.
The man stood motionless where she had left him, wondering at himself, at her, at the whole rocking universe. She had kindled the Magic Fire in him indeed! His whole being was aglow. And yet--and yet--she had had her way with him. He had let her go.
Wherefore? Wherefore? The hot blood dinned in his ears. His hands clenched. And from very deep within him the answer came. Because he loved her.