This time the dancers did not retreat or vanish; they lurked in the comparative gloom of the entry, jigging and trembling as if mustering their powers and resolutions for another rush at us.
“You see,” I chattered out to her, “it wasn’t a nightmare.”
She spoke, not in reply, but as if to herself. “They have no faces,” she whispered. “No faces!” In the half-light that was diffused upon them from our lamp they presented the featurelessness of so many huge gingerbread boys, covered with pink icing. One of them, some kind of leader, pressed forward within the circle of the light. It daunted him a bit. He hesitated, but did not retreat.
From my center table Miss Dolby had picked up a bright paper-cutter. She poised it with the assurance of one who knows how to handle cutting instruments.
“When they come,” she said steadily, “let’s stand close together. We’ll be harder to drag down that way.”
I wanted to shout my admiration of her fearless front toward the dreadful beings, my thankfulness for her quick run to my rescue. All I could mumble was, “You’re mighty brave.”
She turned for a moment to look at the picture above my dying fire. My eyes followed hers. I think I expected to see a blank canvas—find that the painted dancers had vanished from it and had grown into the living ones. But they were still in the picture, and the cross and the victim were there, too. Miss Dolby read aloud the inscription:
“A living picture… The artist knew what he was talking about, after all.”
“Couldn’t a living picture be killed?” I wondered.
It sounded uncertain, and a childish quibble to boot, but Miss Dolby exclaimed triumphantly, as at an inspiration.
“Killed? Yes!” she shouted. She sprang at the picture, darting out with the paper-cutter. The point ripped into one of the central figures in the dancing semicircle.
All the crowd in the entry seemed to give a concerted throb, as of startled protest. I swung, heart racing, to front them again. What had happened? Something had changed, I saw. The intrepid leader had vanished. No, he had not drawn back into the group. He had vanished.
Miss Dolby, too, had seen. She struck again, gashed the painted representation of another dancer. And this time the vanishing happened before my eyes, a creature at the rear of the group went out of existence as suddenly and completely as though a light had blinked out.
The others, driven by their danger, rushed.
I met them, feet planted. I tried to embrace them all at once, went over backward under them. I struck, wrenched, tore. I think I even bit something grisly and bloodless, like fungoid tissue, but I refuse to remember for certain. One or two of the forms struggled past me and grappled Miss Dolby. I struggled to my feet and pulled them back from her. There were not so many swarming after me now. I fought hard before they got me down again. And Miss Dolby kept tearing and stabbing at the canvas—again, again. Clutches melted from my throat, my arms. There were only two dancers left. I flung them back and rose. Only one left. Then none.
They were gone, gone into nowhere.
“That did it,” said Miss Dolby breathlessly.
She had pulled the picture down. It was only a frame now, with ragged ribbons of canvas dangling from it.
I snatched it out of her hands and threw it upon the coals of the fire.
“Look,” I urged her joyfully. “It’s burning! That’s the end. Do you see?”
“Yes, I see,” she answered slowly. “Some fiend-ridden artist—his evil genius brought it to life.”
“The inscription is the literal truth, then?” I supplied.
“Truth no more.” She bent to watch the burning. “As the painted figures were destroyed, their incarnations faded.”
We said nothing further, but sat down together and gazed as the flames ate the last thread of fabric, the last splinter of wood. Finally we looked up again and smiled at each other.
All at once I knew that I loved her.
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