Chapter VI. Lovers
 

She came haltingly, clinging with both hands to the rail of the veranda, her white face staring upwards in terror and instinctive appeal. She was like an insect dragging itself away from destruction, with drenched and battered wings.

He saw her coming and stiffened. It was his vision returned to him, but till she came within reach of him he was afraid to move. He stood upright against the wall, every mad instinct of his blood fiercely awake and clamouring.

The noise and wind increased. It swirled along the veranda. She seemed afraid to quit her hold of the balustrade lest she should be swept away. But still she drew nearer to the lighted window, and at last, with desperate resolution, she tore herself free and sprang for shelter.

In that instant the man also sprang. He caught her in arms that almost expected to clasp emptiness, arms that crushed in a savage ecstasy of possession at the actual contact with a creature of flesh and blood. In the same moment the lamp in the room behind him flared up and went out.

There arose a frightened crying from his breast. For a few moments she fought like a mad thing for freedom. He felt her teeth set in his arm, and laughed aloud. Then very suddenly her struggles ceased. He became aware of a change in her. She gave her whole weight into his arms, and lay palpitating against his heart.

By the awful glare of the lightning he found her face uplifted to his. She was laughing, too, but in her eyes was such a passion of love as he had never looked upon before. In that moment he knew that she was his--wholly, completely, irrevocably his. And, stooping, he kissed the upturned lips with the fierce exultation of the conqueror.

Her arms slipped round his neck. She abandoned herself wholly to him. She gave him worship for worship, passion for passion.

Later, he awoke to the fact that she was drenched from head to foot. He drew her into his room and shut the window against the driving blast. She clung to him still.

"Isn't it dreadful?" she said, shuddering. "It's just as if Something Big is trying to get between us."

He closed the shutter also, and groped for matches. She accompanied him on his search, for she would not lose touch with him for a moment.

The lamp flared on her white, childish face, showing him wild joy and horror strangely mingled. Her great eyes laughed up at him.

"Billikins, darling! You aren't very decent, are you? I'm not decent either, Billikins. I'd like to take off all my clothes and dance on my head."

He laughed grimly. "You will certainly have to undress--the sooner the better."

She spread out her hands. "But I've nothing to wear, Billikins, nothing but what I've got on. I didn't know it was going to rain so. You'll have to lend me a suit of pyjamas, dear, while I get my things dried. You see"--she halted a little--"I came away in rather a hurry. I--was bored."

Merryon, oddly sobered by her utter dependence upon him, turned aside and foraged for brandy. She came close to him while he poured it out.

"It isn't for me, is it? I couldn't drink it, darling. I shouldn't know what was happening for the next twenty-four hours if I did."

"It doesn't matter whether you do or not," he said. "I shall be here to look after you."

She laughed at that, a little quivering laugh of sheer content. Her cheek was against his shoulder. "Live for ever, O king!" she said, and softly kissed it.

Then she caught sight of something on the arm below. "Oh, darling, did I do that?" she cried, in distress.

He put the arm about her. "It doesn't matter. I don't feel it," he said. "I've got you."

She lifted her lips to his again. "Billikins, darling, I didn't know it was you--at first, not till I heard you laugh. I'd rather die than hurt you. You know it, don't you?"

"Of course I know it," he said.

He caught her to him passionately for a moment, then slowly relaxed his hold. "Drink this, like a good child," he said, "and then you must get to bed. You are wet to the skin."

"I know I am," she said, "but I don't mind."

"I mind for you," he said.

She laughed up at him, her eyes like stars. "I was lucky to get in when I did," she said. "Wasn't the heat dreadful--and the lightning? I ran all the way from the station. I was just terrified at it all. But I kept thinking of you, dear--of you, and how--and how you'd kissed me that night when I was such a little idiot as to cry. Must I really drink it, Billikins? Ah, well, just to please you--anything to please you. But you must have one little sip first. Yes, darling, just one. That's to please your silly little wife, who wants to share everything with you now. There's my own boy! Now I'll drink every drop--every drop."

She began to drink, standing in the circle of his arm; then looked up at him with a quick grimace. "It's powerful strong, dear. You'll have to put me to bed double quick after this, or I shall be standing on my head in earnest."

He laughed a little. She leaned back against him.

"Yes, I know, darling. You're a man that likes to manage, aren't you? Well, you can manage me and all that is mine for the rest of my natural life. I'm never going to leave you again, Billikins. That's understood, is it?"

His face sobered. "What possessed you to come back to this damnable place?" he said.

She laughed against his shoulder. "Now, Billikins, don't you start asking silly questions. I'll tell you as much as it's good for you to know all in good time. I came mainly because I wanted to. And that's the reason why I'm going to stay. See?"

She reached up an audacious finger and smoothed the faint frown from his forehead with her sunny, provocative smile.

"It'll have to be a joint management," she said. "There are so many things you mustn't do. Now, darling, I've finished the brandy to please you. So suppose you look out your prettiest suit of pyjamas, and I'll try and get into them." She broke into a giddy little laugh. "What would Mrs. Paget say? Can't you see her face? I can!"

She stopped suddenly, struck dumb by a terrible blast of wind that shook the bungalow to its foundations.

"Just hark to the wind and the rain, Billikins!" she whispered, as it swirled on. "Did you ever hear anything so awful? It's as if--as if God were very furious--about something. Do you think He is, dear? Do you?" She pressed close to him with white, pleading face upraised. "Do you believe in God, Billikins? Honestly now!"

The man hesitated, holding her fast in his arms, seeing only the quivering, childish mouth and beseeching eyes.

"You don't, do you?" she said. "I don't myself, Billikins. I think He's just a myth. Or anyhow--if He's there at all--He doesn't bother about the people who were born on the wrong side of the safety-curtain. There, darling! Kiss me once more--I love your kisses--I love them! And now go! Yes--yes, you must go--just while I make myself respectable. Yes, but you can leave the door ajar, dear heart! I want to feel you close at hand. I am yours--till I die--king and master!"

Her eyes were brimming with tears; he thought her overwrought and weary, and passed them by in silence.

And so through that night of wonder, of violence, and of storm, she lay against his heart, her arms wound about his neck with a closeness which even sleep could not relax.

Out of the storm she had come to him, like a driven bird seeking refuge; and through the fury of the storm he held her, compassing her with the fire of his passion.

"I am safe now," she murmured once, when he thought her sleeping. "I am quite--quite safe."

And he, fancying the raging of the storm had disturbed her, made hushing answer, "Quite safe, wife of my heart."

She trembled a little, and nestled closer to his breast.