The Safety Curtain by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VIII. The Mouth of the Pit
So Puck had her way and stayed.
She was evidently sublimely happy--at least in Merryon's society, but she did not pick up her strength very quickly, and but for her unfailing high spirits Merryon would have felt anxious about her. There seemed to be nothing of her. She was not like a creature of flesh and blood. Yet how utterly, how abundantly, she satisfied him! She poured out her love to him in a perpetual offering that never varied or grew less. She gave him freely, eagerly, glowingly, all she had to give. With passionate triumph she answered to his need. And that need was growing. He could not blind himself to the fact. His profession no longer filled his life. There were times when he even resented its demands upon him. The sick list was rapidly growing, and from morning till night his days were full.
Puck made no complaint. She was always waiting for him, however late the hour of his return. She was always in his arms the moment the dripping overcoat was removed. Sometimes he brought work back with him, and wrestled with regimental accounts and other details far into the night. It was not his work, but someone had to do it, and it had devolved upon him.
Puck never would go to bed without him. It was too lonely, she said; she was afraid of snakes, or rats, or bogies. She used to curl up on the charpoy in his room, clad in the airiest of wrappers, and doze the time away till he was ready.
One night she actually fell into a sound sleep thus, and he, finishing his work, sat on and on, watching her, loath to disturb her. There was deep pathos in her sleeping face. Lines that in her waking moments were never apparent were painfully noticeable in repose. She had the puzzled, wistful look of a child who has gone through trouble without understanding it--a hurt and piteous look.
He watched her thus till a sense of trespass came upon him, and then he rose, bent over her, and very tenderly lifted her.
She was alert on the instant, with a sharp movement of resistance. Then at once her arms went round his neck. "Oh, darling, is it you? Don't bother to carry me! You're so tired!"
He smiled at the idea, and she nestled against his heart, lifting soft lips to his.
He carried her to bed, and laid her down, but she would not let him go immediately. She yet clung about his neck, hiding her face against it.
He held her closely. "Good-night, little pal--little sweetheart," he said.
Her arms tightened. "Billikins!" she said.
He waited. "What is it, dear?"
She became a little agitated. He could feel her lips moving, but they said no audible word.
He waited in silence. And suddenly she raised her face and looked at him fully. There was a glory in her eyes such as he had never seen before.
"I dreamt last night that the wonderfullest thing happened," she said, her red lips quivering close to his own. "Billikins, what if--the dream came true?"
A hot wave of feeling went through him at her words. He crushed her to him, feeling the quick beat of her heart against his own, the throbbing surrender of her whole being to his. He kissed her burningly, with such a passion of devotion as had never before moved him.
She laughed rapturously. "Isn't it great, Billikins?" she said. "And I'd have missed it all if it hadn't been for you. Just think--if I hadn't jumped--before the safety-curtain--came--down!"
She was speaking between his kisses, and eventually they stopped her.
"Don't think," he said; "don't think!"
It was the beginning of a new era, the entrance of a new element into their lives. Perhaps till that night he had never looked upon her wholly in the light of wife. His blind passion for her had intoxicated him. She had been to him an elf from fairyland, a being elusive who offered him all the magic of her love, but upon whom he had no claims. But from that night his attitude towards her underwent a change. Very tenderly he took her into his own close keeping. She had become human in his eyes, no longer a wayward sprite, but a woman, eager-hearted, and his own. He gave her reverence because of that womanhood which he had only just begun to visualize in her. Out of his passion there had kindled a greater fire. All that she had in life she gave him, glorying in the gift, and in return he gave her love.
All through the days that followed he watched over her with unfailing devotion--a devotion that drew her nearer to him than she had ever been before. She was ever responsive to his mood, keenly susceptible to his every phase of feeling. But, curiously, she took no open notice of the change in him. She was sublimely happy, and like a child she lived upon happiness, asking no questions. He never saw her other than content.
Slowly that month of deadly rain wore on. The Plains had become a vast and fetid swamp, the atmosphere a weltering, steamy heat, charged with fever, leaden with despair.
But Puck was like a singing bird in the heart of the wilderness. She lived apart in a paradise of her own, and even the colonel had to relent again and bestow his grim smile upon her.
"Merryon's a lucky devil," he said, and everyone in the mess agreed with him.
But, "You wait!" said Macfarlane, the doctor, with gloomy emphasis. "There's more to come."
It was on a night of awful darkness that he uttered this prophecy, and his hearers were in too overwhelming a state of depression to debate the matter.
Merryon's bungalow was actually the only one in the station in which happiness reigned. They were sitting together in his den smoking a great many cigarettes, listening to the perpetual patter of the rain on the roof and the drip, drip, drip of it from gutter to veranda, superbly content and "completely weather-proof," as Puck expressed it.
"I hope none of the boys will turn up to-night," she said. "We haven't room for more than two, have we?"
"Oh, someone is sure to come," responded Merryon. "They'll be getting bored directly, and come along here for coffee."
"There's someone there now," said Puck, cocking her head. "I think I shall run along to bed and leave you to do the entertaining. Shall I?"
She looked at him with a mischievous smile, very bright-eyed and alert.
"It would be a quick method of getting rid of them," remarked Merryon.
She jumped up. "Very well, then. I'll go, shall I? Shall I, darling?"
He reached out a hand and grasped her wrist. "No," he said, deliberately, smiling up at her. "You'll stay and do your duty--unless you're tired," he added. "Are you?"
She stooped to bestow a swift caress upon his forehead. "My own Billikins!" she murmured. "You're the kindest husband that ever was. Of course, I'm going to stay."
She could scarcely have effected her escape had she so desired, for already a hand was on the door. She turned towards it with the roguish smile still upon her lips.
Merryon was looking at her at the moment. She interested him far more than the visitor, whom he guessed to be one of the subalterns. And so looking, he saw the smile freeze upon her face to a mask-like immobility. And very suddenly he remembered a man whom he had once seen killed on a battlefield--killed instantaneously--while laughing at some joke. The frozen mirth, the starting eyes, the awful vacancy where the soul had been--he saw them all again in the face of his wife.
"Great heavens, Puck! What is it?" he said, and sprang to his feet.
In the same instant she turned with the movement of one tearing herself free from an evil spell, and flung herself violently upon his breast. "Oh, Billikins, save me--save me!" she cried, and broke into hysterical sobbing.
His arms were about her in a second, sheltering her, sustaining her. His eyes went beyond her to the open door.
A man was standing there--a bulky, broad-featured, coarse-lipped man with keen black eyes that twinkled maliciously between thick lids, and a black beard that only served to emphasize an immensely heavy under-jaw. Merryon summed him up swiftly as a Portuguese American with more than a dash of darker blood in his composition.
He entered the room in a fashion that was almost insulting. It was evident that he was summing up Merryon also.
The latter waited for him, stiff with hostility, his arms still tightly clasping Puck's slight, cowering form. He spoke as the stranger advanced, in his voice a deep menace like the growl of an angry beast protecting its own.
"Who are you? And what do you want?"
The stranger's lips parted, showing a gleam of strong white teeth. "My name," he said, speaking in a peculiarly soft voice that somehow reminded Merryon of the hiss of a reptile, "is Leo Vulcan. You have heard of me? Perhaps not. I am better known in the Western Hemisphere. You ask me what I want?" He raised a brown, hairy hand and pointed straight at the girl in Merryon's arms. "I want--my wife!"
Puck's cry of anguish followed the announcement, and after it came silence--a tense, hard-breathing silence, broken only by her long-drawn, agonized sobbing.
Merryon's hold had tightened all unconsciously to a grip; and she was clinging to him wildly, convulsively, as she had never clung before. He could feel the horror that pulsed through her veins; it set his own blood racing at fever-speed.
Over her head he faced the stranger with eyes of steely hardness. "You have made a mistake," he said, briefly and sternly.
The other man's teeth gleamed again. He had a way of lifting his lip when talking which gave him an oddly bestial look. "I think not," he said. "Let the lady speak for herself! She will not--I think--deny me."
There was an intolerable sneer in the last sentence. A sudden awful doubt smote through Merryon. He turned to the girl sobbing at his breast.
"Puck," he said, "for Heaven's sake--what is this man to you?"
She did not answer him; perhaps she could not. Her distress was terrible to witness, utterly beyond all control.
But the newcomer was by no means disconcerted by it. He drew near with the utmost assurance.
"Allow me to deal with her!" he said, and reached out a hand to touch her.
But at that action Merryon's wrath burst into sudden flame. "Curse you, keep away!" he thundered. "Lay a finger on her at your peril!"
The other stood still, but his eyes gleamed evilly. "My good sir," he said, "you have not yet grasped the situation. It is not a pleasant one for you--for either of us; but it has got to be grasped. I do not happen to know under what circumstances you met this woman; but I do know that she was my lawful wife before the meeting took place. In whatever light you may be pleased to regard that fact, you must admit that legally she is my property, not yours!"
"Oh, no--no--no!" moaned Puck.
Merryon said nothing. He felt strangled, as if a ligature about his throat had forced all the blood to his brain and confined it there.
After a moment the bearded man continued: "You may not know it, but she is a dancer of some repute, a circumstance which she owes entirely to me. I picked her up, a mere child in the streets of London, turning cart-wheels for a living. I took her and trained her as an acrobat. She was known on the stage as Toby the Tumbler. Everyone took her for a boy. Later, she developed a talent for dancing. It was then that I decided to marry her. She desired the marriage even more than I did." Again he smiled his brutal smile.
"Oh, no!" sobbed Puck. "Oh, no!"
He passed on with a derisive sneer. "We were married about two years ago. She became popular in the halls very soon after, and it turned her head. You may have discovered yourself by this time that she is not always as tractable as she might be. I had to teach her obedience and respect, and eventually I succeeded. I conquered her--as I hoped--completely. However, six months ago she took advantage of a stage fire to give me the slip, and till recently I believed that she was dead. Then a friend of mine--Captain Silvester--met her out here in India a few weeks back at a place called Shamkura, and recognized her. Her dancing qualities are superb. I think she displayed them a little rashly if she really wished to remain hidden. He sent me the news, and I have come myself to claim her--and take her back."
"You can't take me back!" It was Puck's voice, but not as Merryon had ever heard it before. She flashed round like a hunted creature at bay, her eyes blazing a wild defiance into the mocking eyes opposite. "You can't take me back!" she repeated, with quivering insistence. "Our marriage was--no marriage! It was a sham--a sham! But even if--even if--it had been--a true marriage--you would have to--set me--free--now."
"And why?" said Vulcan, with his evil smile.
She was white to the lips, but she faced him unflinching. "There is--a reason," she said.
"In--deed!" He uttered a scoffing laugh of deadly insult. "The same reason, I presume, as that for which you married me?"
She flinched at that--flinched as if he had struck her across the face. "Oh, you brute!" she said, and shuddered back against Merryon's supporting arm. "You wicked brute!"
It was then that Merryon wrenched himself free from that paralysing constriction that bound him, and abruptly intervened.
"Puck," he said, "go! Leave us! I will deal with this matter in my own way."
She made no move to obey. Her face was hidden in her hands. But she was sobbing no longer, only sickly shuddering from head to foot.
He took her by the shoulder. "Go, child, go!" he urged.
But she shook her head. "It's no good," she said. "He has got--the whip-hand."
The utter despair of her tone pierced straight to his soul. She stood as one bent beneath a crushing burden, and he knew that her face was burning behind the sheltering hands.
He still held her with a certain stubbornness of possession, though she made no further attempt to cling to him.
"What do you mean by that?" he said, bending to her. "Tell me what you mean! Don't be afraid to tell me!"
She shook her head again. "I am bound," she said, dully, "bound hand and foot."
"You mean that you really are--married to him?" Merryon spoke the words as it were through closed lips. He had a feeling as of being caught in some crushing machinery, of being slowly and inevitably ground to shapeless atoms.
Puck lifted her head at length and spoke, not looking at him. "I went through a form of marriage with him," she said, "for the sake of--of--of--decency. I always loathed him. I always shall. He only wants me now because I am--I have been--valuable to him. When he first took me he seemed kind. I was nearly starved, quite desperate, and alone. He offered to teach me to be an acrobat, to make a living. I'd better have drowned myself." A little tremor of passion went through her voice; she paused to steady it, then went on. "He taught by fear--and cruelty. He opened my eyes to evil. He used to beat me, too--tie me up in the gymnasium--and beat me with a whip till--till I was nearly beside myself and ready to promise anything--anything, only to stop the torture. And so he got everything he wanted from me, and when I began to be successful as a dancer he--married me. I thought it would make things better. I didn't think, if I were his wife, he could go on ill-treating me quite so much. But I soon found my mistake. I soon found I was even more his slave than before. And then--just a week before the fire--another woman came, and told me that it was not a real marriage; that--that he had been through exactly the same form with her--and there was nothing in it."
She stopped again at sound of a low laugh from Vulcan. "Not quite the same form, my dear," he said. "Yours was as legal and binding as the English law could make it. I have the certificate with me to prove this. As you say, you were valuable to me then--as you will be again, and so I was careful that the contract should be complete in every particular. Now--if you have quite finished your--shall we call it confession?--I suggest that you should return to your lawful husband and leave this gentleman to console himself as soon as may be. It is growing late, and it is not my intention that you should spend another night under his protection."
He spoke slowly, with a curious, compelling emphasis, and as if in answer to that compulsion Puck's eyes came back to his.
"Oh, no!" she said, in a quick, frightened whisper. "No! I can't! I can't!"
Yet she made a movement towards him as if drawn irresistibly.
And at that movement, wholly involuntary as it was, something in Merryon's brain seemed to burst. He saw all things a burning, intolerable red. With a strangled oath he caught her back, held her violently--a prisoner in his arms.
"By God, no!" he said. "I'll kill you first!"
She turned in his embrace. She lifted her lips and passionately kissed him. "Yes, kill me! Kill me!" she cried to him. "I'd rather die!"
Again the stranger laughed, though his eyes were devilish. "You had better come without further trouble," he remarked. "You will only add to your punishment--which will be no light one as it is--by these hysterics. Do you wish to see my proofs?" He addressed Merryon with sudden open malignancy. "Or am I to take them to the colonel of your regiment?"
"You may take them to the devil!" Merryon said. He was holding her crushed to his heart. He flung his furious challenge over her head. "If the marriage was genuine you shall set her free. If it was not"--he paused, and ended in a voice half-choked with passion--"you can go to blazes!"
The other man showed his teeth in a wolfish snarl. "She is my wife," he said, in his slow, sibilant way. "I shall not set her free. And--wherever I go, she will go also."
"If you can take her, you infernal blackguard!" Merryon threw at him. "Now get out. Do you hear? Get out--if you don't want to be shot! Whatever happens to-morrow, I swear by God in heaven she shall not go with you to-night!"
The uncontrolled violence of his speech was terrible. His hold upon Puck was violent also, more violent than he knew. Her whole body lay a throbbing weight upon him, and he was not even aware of it.
"Go!" he reiterated, with eyes of leaping flame. "Go! or--" He left the sentence uncompleted. It was even more terrible than his flow of words had been. The whole man vibrated with a wrath that possessed him in a fashion so colossal as to render him actually sublime. He mastered the situation by the sheer, indomitable might of his fury. There was no standing against him. It would have been as easy to stem a racing torrent.
Vulcan, for all his insolence, realized the fact. The man's strength in that moment was gigantic, practically limitless. There was no coping with it. Still with the snarl upon his lips he turned away.
"You will pay for this, my wife," he said. "You will pay in full. When I punish, I punish well."
He reached the door and opened it, still leering back at the limp, girlish form in Merryon's arms.
"It will not be soon over," he said. "It will take many days, many nights, that punishment--till you have left off crying for mercy, or expecting it."
He was on the threshold. His eyes suddenly shot up with a gloating hatred to Merryon's.
"And you," he said, "will have the pleasure of knowing every night when you lie down alone that she is either writhing under the lash--a frequent exercise for a while, my good sir--or finding subtle comfort in my arms; both pleasant subjects for your dreams."
He was gone. The door closed slowly, noiselessly, upon his exit. There was no sound of departing feet.
But Merryon neither listened nor cared. He had turned Puck's deathly face upwards, and was covering it with burning, passionate kisses, drawing her back to life, as it were, by the fiery intensity of his worship.