The Safety Curtain by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VII. The Honeymoon
"You can't mean to let your wife stay here!" ejaculated the colonel, sharply. "You wouldn't do anything so mad!"
Merryon's hard mouth took a sterner downward curve. "My wife refuses to leave me, sir," he said.
"Good heavens above, Merryon!" The colonel's voice held a species of irritated derision. "Do you tell me you can't manage--a--a piece of thistledown like that?"
Merryon was silent, grimly, implacably silent. Plainly he had no intention of making such an admission.
"It's madness--criminal madness!" Colonel Davenant looked at him aggressively, obviously longing to pierce that stubborn calm with which Merryon had so long withstood the world.
But Merryon remained unmoved, though deep in his private soul he knew that the colonel was right, knew that he had decided upon a course of action that involved a risk which he dreaded to contemplate.
"Oh, look here, Merryon!" The colonel lost his temper after his own precipitate fashion. "Don't be such a confounded fool! Take a fortnight's leave--I can't spare you longer--and go back to the Hills with her! Make her settle down with my wife at Shamkura! Tell her you'll beat her if she doesn't!"
Merryon's grim face softened a little. "Thank you very much, sir! But you can't spare me even for so long. Moreover, that form of punishment wouldn't scare her. So, you see, it would come to the same thing in the end. She is determined to face what I face for the present."
"And you're determined to let her!" growled the colonel.
Merryon shrugged his shoulders.
"You'll probably lose her," the colonel persisted, gnawing fiercely at his moustache. "Have you considered that?"
"I've considered everything," Merryon said, rather heavily. "But she came to me--through that inferno. I can't send her away again. She wouldn't go."
Colonel Davenant swore under his breath. "Let me talk to her!" he said, after a moment.
The ghost of a smile touched Merryon's face. "It's no good, sir. You can talk. You won't make any impression."
"But it's practically a matter of life and death, man!" insisted the colonel. "You can't afford any silly sentiment in an affair like this."
"I am not sentimental," Merryon said, and his lips twitched a little with the words. "But all the same, since she has set her heart on staying, she shall stay. I have promised that she shall."
"You are mad," the colonel declared. "Just think a minute! Think what your feelings will be if she dies!"
"I have thought, sir." The dogged note was in Merryon's voice again. His face was a mask of impenetrability. "If she dies, I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I made her happy first."
It was his last word on the subject. He departed, leaving the colonel fuming.
That evening the latter called upon Mrs. Merryon. He found her sitting on her husband's knee smoking a Turkish cigarette, and though she abandoned this unconventional attitude to receive her visitor, he had a distinct impression that the two were in subtle communion throughout his stay.
"It's so very nice of you to take the trouble," she said, in her charming way, when he had made his most urgent representations. "But really it's much better for me to be with my husband here. I stayed at Shamkura just as long as I could possibly bear it, and then I just had to come back here. I don't think I shall get ill--really. And if I do"--she made a little foreign gesture of the hands--"I'll nurse myself."
As Merryon had foretold, it was useless to argue with her. She dismissed all argument with airy unreason. But yet the colonel could not find it in his heart to be angry with her. He was very angry with Merryon, so angry that for a whole fortnight he scarcely spoke to him.
But when the end of the fortnight came, and with it the first break in the rains, little Mrs. Merryon went smiling forth and returned his call.
"Are you still being cross with Billikins?" she asked him, while her hand lay engagingly in his. "Because it's really not his fault, you know. If he sent me to Kamchatka, I should still come back."
"You wouldn't if you belonged to me," said Colonel Davenant, with a grudging smile.
She laughed and shook her head. "Perhaps I shouldn't--not unless I loved you as dearly as I love Billikins. But I think you needn't be cross about it. I'm quite well. If you don't believe me, you can look at my tongue."
She shot it out impudently, still laughing. And the colonel suddenly and paternally patted her cheek.
"You're a very naughty girl," he said. "But I suppose we shall have to make the best of you. Only, for Heaven's sake, don't go and get ill on the quiet! If you begin to feel queer, send for the doctor at the outset!"
He abandoned his attitude of disapproval towards Merryon after that interview, realizing possibly its injustice. He even declared in a letter to his wife that Mrs. Merryon was an engaging chit, with a will of her own that threatened to rule them all! Mrs. Davenant pursed her lips somewhat over the assertion, and remarked that Major Merryon's wife was plainly more at home with men than women. Captain Silvester was so openly out of temper over her absence that it was evident she had been "leading him on with utter heartlessness," and now, it seemed, she meant to have the whole mess at her beck and call.
As a matter of fact, Puck saw much more of the mess than she desired. It became the fashion among the younger officers to drop into the Merryons' bungalow at the end of the evening. Amusements were scarce, and Puck was a vigorous antidote to boredom. She always sparkled in society, and she was too sweet-natured to snub "the boys," as she called them. The smile of welcome was ever ready on her little, thin white face, the quick jest on her nimble tongue.
"We mustn't be piggy just because we are happy," she said to her husband once. "How are they to know we are having our honeymoon?" And then she nestled close to him, whispering, "It's quite the best honeymoon any woman ever had."
To which he could make but the one reply, pressing her to his heart and kissing the red lips that mocked so merrily when the world was looking on.
She had become the hub of his existence, and day by day he watched her anxiously, grasping his happiness with a feeling that it was too great to last.
The rains set in in earnest, and the reek of the Plains rose like an evil miasma to the turbid heavens. The atmosphere was as the interior of a steaming cauldron. Great toadstools spread like a loathsome disease over the compound. Fever was rife in the camp. Mosquitoes buzzed incessantly everywhere, and rats began to take refuge in the bungalow. Puck was privately terrified at rats, but she smothered her terror in her husband's presence and maintained a smiling front. They laid down poison for the rats, who died horribly in inaccessible places, making her wonder if they were not almost preferable alive. And then one night she discovered a small snake coiled in a corner of her bedroom.
She fled to Merryon in horror, and he and the khitmutgar slew the creature. But Puck's nerves were on edge from that day forward. She went through agonies of cold fear whenever she was left alone, and she feverishly encouraged the subalterns to visit her during her husband's absence on duty.
He raised no objection till he one day returned unexpectedly to find her dancing a hornpipe for the benefit of a small, admiring crowd to whom she had been administering tea.
She sprang like a child to meet him at his entrance, declaring the entertainment at an end; and the crowd soon melted away.
Then, somewhat grimly, Merryon took his wife to task.
She sat on the arm of his chair with her arms round his neck, swinging one leg while she listened. She was very docile, punctuating his remarks with soft kisses dropped inconsequently on the top of his head. When he ended, she slipped cosily down upon his knee and promised to be good.
It was not a very serious promise, and it was plainly proffered in a spirit of propitiation. Merryon pursued the matter no further, but he was vaguely dissatisfied. He had a feeling that she regarded his objections as the outcome of eccentric prudishness, or at the best an unreasonable fit of jealousy. She smoothed him down as though he had been a spoilt child, her own attitude supremely unabashed; and though he could not be angry with her, an uneasy sense of doubt pressed upon him. Utterly his own as he knew her to be, yet dimly, intangibly, he began to wonder what her outlook on life could be, how she regarded the tie that bound them. It was impossible to reason seriously with her. She floated out of his reach at the first touch.
So that curious honeymoon of theirs continued, love and passion crudely mingled, union without knowledge, flaming worship and blind possession.
"You are happy?" Merryon asked her once.
To which she made ardent answer, "Always happy in your arms, O king."
And Merryon was happy also, though, looking back later, it seemed to him that he snatched his happiness on the very edge of the pit, and that even at the time he must have been half-aware of it.
When, a month after her coming, the scourge of the Plains caught her, as was inevitable, he felt as if his new-found kingdom had begun already to depart from him.
For a few days Puck was seriously ill with malaria. She came through it with marvellous resolution, nursed by Merryon and his bearer, the general factotum of the establishment.
But it left her painfully weak and thin, and the colonel became again furiously insistent that she should leave the Plains till the rains were over.
Merryon, curiously enough, did not insist. Only one evening he took the little wasted body into his arms and begged her--actually begged her--to consent to go.
"I shall be with you for the first fortnight," he said. "It won't be more than a six-weeks' separation."
"Six weeks!" she protested, piteously.
"Perhaps less," he said. "I may be able to come to you for a day or two in the middle. Say you will go--and stay, sweetheart! Set my mind at rest!"
"But, darling, you may be ill. A thousand things may happen. And I couldn't go back to Shamkura. I couldn't!" said Puck, almost crying, clinging fast around his neck.
"But why not?" he questioned, gently. "Weren't they kind to you there? Weren't you happy?"
She clung faster. "Happy, Billikins! With that hateful Captain Silvester lying in wait to--to make love to me! I didn't tell you before. But that--that was why I left."
He frowned above her head. "You ought to have told me before, Puck."
She trembled in his arms. "It didn't seem to matter when once I'd got away; and I knew it would only make you cross."
"How did he make love to you?" demanded Merryon.
He tried to see her face, but she hid it resolutely against him. "Don't, Billikins! It doesn't matter now."
"It does matter," he said, sternly.
Puck was silent.
Merryon continued inexorably. "I suppose it was your own fault. You led him on."
She gave a little nervous laugh against his breast. "I never meant to, Billikins. I--I don't much like men--as a rule."
"You manage to conceal that fact very successfully," he said.
She laughed again rather piteously. "You don't know me," she whispered. "I'm not--like that--all through."
"I hope not," said Merryon, severely.
She turned her face slightly upwards and snuggled it into his neck. "You used not to mind," she said.
He held her close in his arms the while he steeled himself against her. "Well, I mind now," he said. "And I will have no more of it. Is that clearly understood?"
She assented dubiously, her lips softly kissing his neck. "It isn't--all my fault, Billikins," she whispered, wistfully, "that men treat me--lightly."
He set his teeth. "It must be your fault," he declared, firmly. "You can help it if you try."
She turned her face more fully to his. "How grim you look, darling! You haven't kissed me for quite five minutes."
"I feel more like whipping you," he said, grimly.
She leapt in his arms as if he had been about to put his words into action. "Oh, no!" she cried. "No, you wouldn't beat me, Billikins. You--you wouldn't, dear, would you?" Her great eyes, dilated and imploring, gazed into his for a long desperate second ere she gave herself back to him with a sobbing laugh. "You're not in earnest, of course. I'm silly to listen to you. Do kiss me, darling, and not frighten me anymore!"
He held her close, but still he did not comply with her request. "Did this Silvester ever kiss you?" he asked.
She shook her head vehemently, hiding her face.
"Look at me!" he said.
"No, Billikins!" she protested.
"Then tell me the truth!" he said.
"He kissed me--once, Billikins," came in distressed accents from his shoulder.
"And you?" Merryon's words sounded clipped and cold.
She shivered. "I ran right away to you. I--I didn't feel safe any more."
Merryon sat silent. Somehow he could not stir up his anger against her, albeit his inner consciousness told him that she had been to blame; but for the first time his passion was cooled. He held her without ardour, the while he wondered.
That night he awoke to the sound of her low sobbing at his side. His heart smote him. He put forth a comforting hand.
She crept into his arms. "Oh, Billikins," she whispered, "keep me with you! I'm not safe--by myself."
The man's soul stirred within him. Dimly he began to understand what his protection meant to her. It was her anchor, all she had to keep her from the whirlpools. Without it she was at the mercy of every wind that blew. Again cold doubt assailed him, but he put it forcibly away. He gathered her close, and kissed the tears from her face and the trouble from her heart.