Chapter IX. Greater Than Death
 

She came to life, weakly gasping. She opened her eyes upon him with the old, unwavering adoration in their depths. And then before his burning look hers sank. She hid her face against him with an inarticulate sound more anguished than any weeping.

The savagery went out of his hold. He drew her to the charpoy on which she had spent so many evenings waiting for him, and made her sit down.

She did not cling to him any longer; she only covered her face so that he should not see it, huddling herself together in a piteous heap, her black, curly head bowed over her knees in an overwhelming agony of humiliation.

Yet there was in the situation something that was curiously reminiscent of that night when she had leapt from the burning stage into the safety of his arms. Now, as then, she was utterly dependent upon the charity of his soul.

He turned from her and poured brandy and water into a glass. He came back and knelt beside her.

"Drink it, my darling!" he said.

She made a quick gesture as of surprised protest. She did not raise her head. It was as if an invisible hand were crushing her to the earth.

"Why don't you--kill me?" she said.

He laid his hand upon her bent head. "Because you are the salt of the earth to me," he said; "because I worship you."

She caught the hand with a little sound of passionate endearment, and laid her face down in it, her hot, quivering lips against his palm. "I love you so!" she said. "I love you so!"

He pressed her face slowly upwards. But she resisted. "No, no! I can't--meet--your--eyes."

"You need not be afraid," he said. "Once and for all, Puck, believe me when I tell you that this thing shall never--can never--come between us."

She caught her breath sharply; but still she refused to look up. "Then you don't understand," she said. "You--you--can't understand that--that--I was--his--his--" Her voice failed. She caught his hand in both her own, pressing it hard over her face, writhing in mute shame before him.

"Yes, I do understand," Merryon said, and his voice was very quiet, full of a latent force that thrilled her magnetically. "I understand that when you were still a child this brute took possession of you, broke you to his will, did as he pleased with you. I understand that you were as helpless as a rabbit in the grip of a weasel. I understand that he was always an abomination and a curse to you, that when deliverance offered you seized it; and I do not forget that you would have preferred death if I would have let you die. Do you know, Puck"--his voice had softened by imperceptible degrees; he was bending towards her so that she could feel his breath on her neck while he spoke--"when I took it upon me to save you from yourself that night I knew--I guessed--what had happened to you? No, don't start like that! If there was anything to forgive I forgave you long ago. I understood. Believe me, though I am a man, I can understand."

He stopped. His hand was all wet with her tears. "Oh, darling!" she whispered. "Oh, darling!"

"Don't cry, sweetheart!" he said. "And don't be afraid any longer! I took you from your inferno. I learnt to love you--just as you were, dear, just as you were. You tried to keep me at a distance; do you remember? And then--you found life was too strong for you. You came back and gave yourself to me. Have you ever regretted it, my darling? Tell me that!"

"Never!" she sobbed. "Never! Your love--your love--has been--the safety-curtain--always--between me and--harm."

And then very suddenly she lifted her face, her streaming eyes, and met his look.

"But there's one thing, darling," she said, "which you must know. I loved you always--always--even before that monsoon night. But I came to you then because--because--I knew that I had been recognized, and--I was afraid--I was terrified--till--till I was safe in your arms."

"Ah! But you came to me," he said.

A sudden gleam of mirth shot through her woe. "My! That was a night, Billikins!" she said. And then the clouds came back upon her, overwhelming her. "Oh, what is there to laugh at? How could I laugh?"

He lifted the glass he held and drank from it, then offered it to her. "Drink with me!" he said.

She took, not the glass, but his wrist, and drank with her eyes upon his face.

When she had finished she drew his arms about her, and lay against his shoulder with closed eyes for a space, saying no word.

At last, with a little murmuring sigh, she spoke. "What is going to happen, Billikins?"

"God knows," he said.

But there was no note of dismay in his voice. His hold was strong and steadfast.

She stirred a little. "Do you believe in God?" she asked him, for the second time.

He had not answered her before; he answered her now without hesitation. "Yes, I do."

She lifted her head to look at him. "I wonder why?" she said.

He was silent for a moment; then, "Just because I can hold you in my arms," he said, "and feel that nothing else matters--or can matter again."

"You really feel that?" she said, quickly. "You really love me, dear?"

"That is love," he said, simply.

"Oh, darling!" Her breath came fast. "Then, if they try to take me from you--you will really do it--you won't be afraid?"

"Do what?" he questioned, sombrely.

"Kill me, Billikins," she answered, swiftly. "Kill me--sooner than let me go."

He bent his head. "Yes," he said. "My love is strong enough for that."

"But what would you do--afterwards?" she breathed, her lips raised to his.

A momentary surprise showed in his eyes. "Afterwards?" he questioned.

"After I was gone, darling?" she said, anxiously.

A very strange smile came over Merryon's face. He pressed her to him, his eyes gazing deep into hers. He kissed her, but not passionately, rather with reverence.

"Your afterwards will be mine, dear, wherever it is," he said. "If it comes to that--if there is any going--in that way--we go together."

The anxiety went out of her face in a second. She smiled back at him with utter confidence. "Oh, Billikins!" she said. "Oh, Billikins, that will be great!"

She went back into his arms, and lay there for a further space, saying no word. There was something sacred in the silence between them, something mysterious and wonderful. The drip, drip, drip of the ceaseless rain was the only sound in the stillness. They seemed to be alone together in a sanctuary that none other might enter, husband and wife, made one by the Bond Imperishable, waiting together for deliverance. They were the most precious moments that either had ever known, for in them they were more truly wedded in spirit than they had ever been before.

How long the great silence lasted neither could have said. It lay like a spell for awhile, and like a spell it passed.

Merryon moved at last, moved and looked down into his wife's eyes.

They met his instantly without a hint of shrinking; they even smiled. "It must be nearly bedtime," she said. "You are not going to be busy to-night?"

"Not to-night," he said.

"Then don't let's sit up any longer, darling," she said. "We can't either of us afford to lose our beauty sleep."

She rose with him, still with her shining eyes lifted to his, still with that brave gaiety sparkling in their depths. She gave his arm a tight little squeeze. "My, Billikins, how you've grown!" she said, admiringly. "You always were--pretty big. But to-night you're just--titanic!"

He smiled and touched her cheek, not speaking.

"You fill the world," she said.

He bent once more to kiss her. "You fill my heart," he said.