Ethel M. (Ethel May) Dell.

The safety curtain, and other stories online

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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, convul-
sively, 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's 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



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 77

A sudden av/ful 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 new-comer 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 thun-
dered. " 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



78 THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

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
on the halls very soon after, and it turned her head.
You may have discovered yourself by this time thai
she is not always as tractable as she might be. I haci
to teach her obedience and respect, and eventually 1
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 recog-
nized 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
collie myself to claim her and take her back."

"You can't lake 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 quiver-
ing insistence. " Our marriage was no marriage !
It was a sham a sham ! But even if even if it



? THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 79

had been a. true marriage you would have to set
mefree 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 paralyzing 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 !" hr
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.



8o THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

" 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 inevita
ground to shapeless atoms.

Puck lifted her head at length and spoke, not look-
ing at him. " I went through a form of marriage with
him," she said, " for the sake of of of decency. 1
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 pas-
sion 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.



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 81

And then just a week before the fire another
woman came, and told me that it was not a real mar-
riage; 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 Eng-
lish 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 par-
ticular. 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 gentle-
man to console himself as soon as may be. It is grow-
ing 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

6



82 THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

passionately kissed him. "Yes, kill me! Ki 1
>he 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
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, ft



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 83

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, prac-
tically limitless. There was no coping with if. 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 expect-
ing it."

He was on the threshold. His eyes suddenly shot
up with a glowering 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 exer-
cise for a while, my good sir or finding subtle com-
fort 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



84 THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

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.



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 inarticu-
late 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 even-
ings 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.



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 85

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 pas-
sionate 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." v

" 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 under-
stand 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



86 THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

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 ! II
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 recog-
nized, and I was afraid I was terrified till - till I
was safe in your arms."



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 8;

* 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 1
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," hefsaid, simply.

" Oh, darling !" Her breath came fast. " Then, if



88 THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

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. " After-
wards ?" 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, Billi-
kins !" 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 wei;e the moft precious moments
that either had ever known, for in them they were more



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 89

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 bed-time," 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.



CHAPTER X

THE SACRIFICE

THEY went round the bungalow together to see to the
fastenings of doors and windows. The khitmutgar
had gone to his o.wn quarters for the night, and they



no THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

\vere quite alone. The drip, drip, drip of the rain \va?
still the only sound, save when the far cry of a prowl-
ing jackal came weirdly through the night

" It!s more gruesome than usual somehow," said
Puck, still fast clinging to her husband's arm. " I'm
not a bit frightened, darling, only sort of creepy at the
back. But there's nobody here but you and me, is
there ?"

" Nobody," said Merry on.

" And will you please come and see if there are any
snakes or scorpions before I begin to undress ?" she
said. " The very fact of looking under my bed makes
my hair stand on end."

He went with her and made a thorough investiga-
tion, finding nothing.

"That's all right," she said, with a sigh of relief.
" And yet, somehow, I feel as if something is waiting
round the corner to pounce out on us. Is it Fate, do
you think ? Or just my silly fancy ?"

" I think it is probably your startled nerves, dear,"
he said, smiling a little.

She assented with a half-suppressed shudder. " But
I'm sure something will happen directly," she said.
" I'm sure. I'm sure."

" Well, I shall only be in the next room if it < '
he said.

He was about to leave^her, but she sprang after
him, clinging to his arm. "And you won't be late,
will you ?" she pleaded. " I can't sleep without you.
Ah, what is that ? What is it ? What is it ?"

Her voice rose almost to a shriek. A sudden loud



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN gi

knocking had broken through- the endless patter of
the rain.

Merryon's face changed a very little. The iron-
grey eyes became stony, quite expressionless. He
stood a moment listening. Then, "Stay here!" he
said, his voice very level and composed. " Yes, Puck,
I wjsh it. Stay here ! "

It was a distinct command, the most distinct he had
ever given her. Her clinging hands slipped from his
arm. She stood rigid, unprotesting, white as death.

The knocking was renewed with fevered energy as
Merryon turned quietly to obey the summons. He
closed the door upon his wife and went down the
passage.

There was no haste in his movements as he slipped
back the bolts, rather the studied deliberation of pur-
pose of a man armed against all emergency. But the
door burst inwards against him the moment he opened
it, and one of his subalterns, young Harley, almost
fell into his arms.

Merryon steadied him with the utmost composure.
" Hullo, Harley ! You, is it ? What's all this noise
about ?"

The boy pulled himself together with an effort. He
was white to the lips.

" There's cholera broken out," he said. " Forbes
and Robey both down at their own bungalow.
And they've got it at the barracks, too. Macfarlane's
there. Can you come ?"

" Of course at once." Merryon pulled him for-
ward. " Go in there and get a drink while I speak
to my wife !"



92 THE SAFETY-CURTAIN

He turned back to her door, but she met him on the
threshold. Her eyes burned like stars in her little
pale face.

" It's all right, Billikins," she said, and swallowed
hard. " I heard. You've got to go to the barracks,
haven't you, darling? I knew there was going to
be something. Well, you must take something to
eat in your pocket. You'll want it before morning.
And some brandy too. Give me your flask, darling,
arid I'll fill it!"

Her composure amazed him. He had expected
anguished distress at the bare idea of his leaving her,
but those brave, bright eyes of hers were actually

smiling.

" Puck ! " he said. " You wonder ! "

She made a small face at him. " Oh, you're not the
only wonder in the world," she told him. " Run along
and get yourself ready ! My ! You are going to be
busy, aren't you ?"

She nodded to him and ran into the drawing-room
to young Harley. He heard her chatting there while
he made swift preparations for departure, and he
thanked Heaven that she realized so little the ghastly
nature of the horror that had swept down upon them.
He hoped the boy would have the sense to let her
remain unenlightened. It was bad enough to have to
leave her after the ordeal they had just faced together.
He did not want her terrihed on his account as well.

But when he joined them she was still smiling,
eager only to provide for any possible want of his, not
thinking of herself at all.



THE SAFETY-CURTAIN 93

" I hope you will enjoy your picnic, Billikins," she
said. " I'll shut the door after you, and I shall know
it's properly fastened. Oh, yes, the khit will take care
of me, Mr. Harley. He's such a brave man. He kills
snakes without the smallest change of countenance.
Good-night, Billikins ! Take care of yourself ! I
suppose you'll come back some time ?"

She gave him the lightest caress imaginable, shook
hands affectionately with young Harley, who was
looking decidedly less pinched than he had upon
arrival, and stood waving an energetic hand as they
went away into the dripping dark.

"You didn't tell her anything?" Merryon asked,
as they plunged down the road.

" Not more than I could help, major. But she
seemed to know without." The lad spoke uncomfort-
ably, as if against his will.

" She asked questions, then ?" Merryon's voice was
sharp.

" Yes, a few. She wanted to know about Forbes
and Robey. Robey is awfully bad. I didn't tell her
that."

" Who is looking after them ?" Merryon asked.

" Only a native orderly now. The colonel and Mac-
farlane both had to go to the barracks. It's frightful
there. About twenty cases already. Oh, damn this


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Online LibraryEthel M. (Ethel May) DellThe safety curtain, and other stories → online text (page 5 of 22)