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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 1 - Chapter 20. The Search
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 1 - Chapter 20. The Search Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2205

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 1 - Chapter 20. The Search

PART I CHAPTER XX. THE SEARCH

For the third time Nick looked at his watch. It was nearly one. He jumped to his feet with a grimace.

"What on earth are those girls up to?"

Rapidly he locked drawer after drawer of his writing-table, gathered up a sheaf of papers, and turned to go.

The library at Redlands overlooked a wide lawn that led through shrubberies to the edge of the cliff, up the face of which had been cut a winding path. He paused a moment considering this. Would they return from the shore by that way? If so, he would miss them if he went in search of them by the drive.

Impatiently he turned back towards the window, and in that moment he caught sight of a flying figure crossing the lawn,--Olga, with a white, strained face, hatless, dishevelled, gasping.

Nick's one arm fought with the heavy window and flung it up. In another second he had leaped out to meet her. She ran to him, stumbled ere she reached him, fell against him, helpless, sobbing, exhausted.

He held her up. "What is it? Violet? Is she drowned?" he questioned rapidly.

"No--no!" She gasped the words as she lay against his shoulder.

"All right then! Take your time! Come and sit down!" said Nick.

He supported her to the low window-sill, and she sank down upon it, still clinging to him with agonized gasping, voiceless and utterly spent.

He stood beside her, strongly grasping her hand. "Keep quite quiet!" he said. "It's the quickest in the end."

She obeyed him, as was her custom, leaning her head against him till gradually her breath came back to her and speech became possible.

"Oh, Nick!" she whispered then. "That any man--could be--so vile!"

"What man?" said Nick sharply.

"Major Hunt-Goring."

He stooped swiftly and looked into her face. "What has he been doing?"

"I'll tell you!" she said. "I'll tell you!"

And then, arrested possibly by something in that flashing regard, she raised herself and looked straight up at him.

"I can only tell you everything," she said, "if you will promise me not to go and quarrel with him--in fact, not to go near him. Will you promise, Nick?"

"I will not," said Nick.

"You must!" she said. "You must!"

"I will not," he said again.

She held his hand imploringly. "Not if I ask you--not if I beg you--"

"Not in any case," he said. "Now tell me the truth as quickly as you can."

She shook her head. "Nick, I can't. He is quite unscrupulous. He might kill you!"

"So he might," said Nick grimly. "He's crazy enough for anything. What has he been doing?"

"Is he crazy?" she said, catching at the word.

"He's drug-ridden," said Nick, "and devil-ridden too upon occasion. Now tell me!"

She began to cry with her head against his arm. "Nick,--I'm frightened! I can't!"

"Oh, damn!" said Nick to the world at large. And then he gently released himself and knelt beside her. "Look here, Olga darling! There's nothing to frighten you. I'm not a headlong fool. There! Dry your eyes, and be sensible! What's the beast been up to? Made love to you, has he?"

His bony hand grasped hers again very vitally, very reassuringly. Almost insensibly she yielded herself to his control. Quiveringly she began to tell him of the morning's happenings.

Perhaps it was as well that she did not see Nick's face as she did so, or she might have found it difficult to continue. As it was she spoke haltingly, with many pauses, describing to him Hunt-Goring's arrival and invitation, her own dilemma, her final surrender.

"I couldn't help it, Nick," she said, still fast clinging to his hand. "I couldn't let her go alone."

"Go on," said Nick.

And then she told him of Hunt-Goring's overture, her own sick repulsion for the man, his persistence, his brutality.

At that abruptly Nick broke in. "Before you go any farther--has he ever made love to you before?"

She answered him because she had no choice. "Yes, Nick. But I always hated him."

"And you didn't tell me," he said.

There was no note of reproach in his tone, yet in some fashion it hurt her.

"Nick--darling, you--you've only got one arm," she said. "And he's such a great, strong bully."

Nick uttered a sudden fierce laugh. His hand was clenched. "You women!" he said, and for some reason Olga felt overwhelmingly foolish.

"Well, finish!" he commanded. "No half-measures, mind! Just the whole truth!"

And Olga stumbled on. She repeated with quivering lips Hunt-Goring's story of the taint in Violet's blood, of the tragedy that had preceded her birth.

"Nick," she said, turning piteous eyes upon his face, "I know it must be partly true, but do you think it is really quite as bad as that? I believed it at the time. But--but--perhaps--"

He shook his head. "It's true," he said briefly.

"True that she is going--mad? Oh, Nick--Nick!"

He slipped his arm around her. "And the devil told her, did he?"

She leaned her forehead on his shoulder in an agony of quivering recollection. "Because I wouldn't listen to him--because--because--"

"Pass on," said Nick. "He told her. What happened?"

But she could not tell him. "It was too dreadful--too dreadful!" she moaned.

"Where is she now?" he pursued. "You can tell me that anyhow."

"She has gone to Mrs. Briggs," Olga whispered. "She said she would know everything. She had been her nurse from the beginning. She--she is in a terrible state, Nick. I only came away to tell you. I thought you would be getting anxious, or I wouldn't have left her. I ran up the cliff path. It was quickest."

"We will go back to her in the motor," Nick said.

He got to his feet, his arm still about her, raising her also.

"Come now!" he said. "Pull yourself together, kiddie! You will need all the strength you can muster. Come inside and have a drain of brandy before we start!"

He led her within. She was shivering as one with an ague, but she made desperate efforts to control herself.

Nick was exceedingly matter-of-fact. There was never anything tragic about him. He made her drink some brandy and water, and while she did so he scribbled a brief note.

"I will send off my own man in the motor with this to Max," he said. "He had better come."

Olga looked up sharply. "It's no manner of use sending for him, Nick. She vows she will never see him again."

"We will have him all the same," said Nick. "He is the man for the job."

He went off and despatched his message, and then, returning, went out with her to the motor in which they had arrived so gaily but a few hours before.

"Now go steady, my chicken!" he said, as he got in beside her. "It wouldn't serve anyone's turn to have a spill at this juncture."

His yellow face smiled cheery encouragement into hers, and Olga felt subtly comforted.

"Oh, I am glad I've got you, Nick," she said. "You're such a brick in any trouble."

"Don't tell anyone!" said Nick. "But that's my speciality."

The midday sun was veiled in a thick haze, and the heat was intense. The dust lay white upon the hedges, and eddied about their wheels as they passed. The sea stretched away indefinitely into the sky, leaden, motionless, with no sound of waves.

"I am sure there will be a storm," said Olga.

"A good thing if there is," said Nick.

"Yes, but Violet is terrified at thunder. She always has been."

"It won't break yet," he said.

Almost noiselessly the motor sped along the dusty road. All Olga's faculties became concentrated upon her task, and she spoke no more.

They reached the village. It seemed to be deserted in the slumbrous stillness. There was not so much as a dog to be seen.

Suddenly Nick spoke. "What became of Hunt-Goring?"

The colour leaped into her pale, tense face. "He landed us at the jetty, and went away again in his yacht."

"Let us hope he will go to the bottom!" said Nick.

She shook her head, a gleam of spirit answering his. "Men like that never do."

They ran unhindered through the village and came to "The Ship." The inn-door gaped upon the street. There was not a soul in sight.

Olga brought the car to a stand. "We had better go straight in, Nick."

"Certainly," said Nick.

She peeped into the bar and found it empty. Together they entered the narrow passage. The unmistakable odour of beer and stale tobacco was all-prevalent. The air was heavy with it. They reached the foot of the steep winding stairs, and Olga paused irresolutely.

"There doesn't seem to be anyone downstairs. Will you wait while I run up?"

"No," said Nick. "I'm coming too."

They ascended therefore, and commenced to search the upper regions. But the same absolute quiet reigned above as below. Only the loud ticking of a cuckoo-clock at the head of the stairs aggravated the stillness.

Olga opened one or two doors along the passage and looked into empty rooms, and finally turned round to Nick with scared eyes.

"What can have happened? Where can she be gone?"

As she uttered the words, there fell a heavy footstep in the sanded passage below, and the sound of a man's cough came up to them.

Nick wheeled. "Hi, Briggs! Is that you?"

"Briggs it is," said a thick voice.

Nick descended the stairs with Olga behind him, and encountered the owner thereof at the bottom. He was a large-limbed man with a permanent slouch and a red and sullen countenance that very faithfully bore witness to his habits. He stood and regarded Nick with a fixed and somewhat aggressive stare.

"Where's the missis?" he said.

"That's just what I want to know," said Nick.

Briggs uttered an uneasy guffaw as if he suspected the existence of a joke that had somewhat eluded him. His eyes rolled upward to Olga, and back to Nick.

"Well, she ain't 'ere seemin'ly," he remarked.

"Don't you know where she is?" demanded Nick.

Briggs grinned foolishly. "That's tellin'!" he observed facetiously.

Nick turned from him. "Come along, Olga! They are not here evidently. It's no use trying to get any sense out of this drunken beast."

"But, Nick--" said Olga in distress.

"We will go down to the shore," he said. "Here, you Briggs! Stand back, will you?"

Briggs was blocking the narrow passage with his great bull-frame, and showed no disposition to let them pass. He seemed to think he had a grievance, and he commenced to state it in a rambling, disjointed fashion, holding them prisoners on the stairs while he did so.

Nick bore with him for exactly ten seconds, and then, clean and straight, with lightning swiftness, his one hand shot forward. It was a single hard blow, delivered full on the jaw with a force that nearly carried Nick with it, and it sent the offender staggering backwards on his heels in bellowing astonishment. The opposite wall saved him from falling headlong, but the impact was considerable, and tendered him quite incapable of recovering his He subsided slowly onto the floor with a flood of language that at least testified to the fact that his injuries were not severe.

Nick's arm went round Olga in a flash. He almost lifted her over the legs of the prostrate Briggs and hurried her down the passage. As they emerged into the smoky sunlight, she heard him laugh, and marvelled that he could.

"On second thoughts," he said, with the air of one resuming an interrupted discussion, "I think we will go to the Priory. If she is not there, she is probably on the way."

"She would go by the cliffs," Olga said.

"Yes, I know. But Mrs. Briggs is with her. We had better motor," said Nick.

So they set off again along the glaring road.

It began to seem like a nightmare to Olga. She drove as one pursued by horrors unspeakable. Once or twice Nick spoke to her, and she knew that she obeyed his instructions, though what they were she could never afterwards remember. On and on they went, flying like cloud-shadows on a windy day, yet--so it seemed to Olga--drawing no nearer to their goal, until quite suddenly she found herself staring at the great Priory gate-posts with their huge stone balls while Nick wrestled with the fastenings of the gates.

They opened before her, and she drove slowly through with a curious sensation as of entering an unknown country, though she had known the Priory grounds from childhood. Nick clambered in beside her as she went, and then they were off again running swiftly up the long drive with its double line of yews to the house.

Memory awoke within her then, and she called to mind that day that seemed so long ago when she had encountered Violet, superbly confident, conquering the rebellious Pluto. The cry of a gull came to her now as then, and it sounded like a cry of pain.

They came within sight of the old grey walls. Silent and tragic, they stood up against the mist-veiled sky. The sunlight had turned to an ominous copper glow. And in that moment Olga was afraid, with that sick apprehension of evil that comes upon occasion even to the brave. She gave no sign of it, but it was coiled like a serpent about her heart from then onwards.

The front-door stood open, its Gothic archway gaping wide and mysterious. Still with that nightmare dread upon her, she descended and passed into the old chapel of the monks.

The stained window at the end cast a lurid stream of light along half its length. She caught her breath in an irrepressible shudder. She thought she had never before realized how gruesomely horrible that window was.

Nick's hand closed upon her elbow, and she breathed again. "Shall we go and investigate upstairs?" he said.

Mutely she yielded to the suggestion. They went down the long vault-like hall, and turned through the archway in the south wall close to the window. As they did so, a sudden sound rent the ghostly stillness, a sound that echoed and echoed from wall to wall, dying at last into a shrill thread of sound that seemed to merge into the cry of a sea-gull over the leaden waters. As it died, there came a noise of running feet in the corridor above, and a white-faced maid-servant rushed gasping down the wide oak stairs.

Olga sprang to intercept her. "Jane, what is the matter? Where is Miss Violet? Have you seen her?"

She caught the terrified girl by the shoulders, holding her fast while she questioned her.

Jane stopped perforce in her headlong flight. "Oh, lor, Miss Olga, do let me go! Miss Violet's upstairs--with Mrs. Briggs. She's in a dreadful taking, and don't seem to know what she's doing. Did you hear her scream? Mrs. Briggs says it's hysterics, but it don't sound like that to me. It's made my blood run cold."

Olga released as swiftly as she had captured her, and started for the stairs. Nick was close behind her. They ascended almost together, past the great window that looked upon the sea, and so on to the oak-panelled corridor that led to Violet's room.

The great wolf-hound Cork came to meet them here, wagging a wistful tail and lifting questioning eyes. He made no attempt to hinder their advance, obviously regarding them as friends in need.

Olga's hand caressed him as she passed, and he came and pressed against her as she stopped outside the closed door. Softly she turned the handle, only to discover that the door was locked. She bent her head to listen, and heard a broken sobbing that was like the crying of a child.

Her face quivered in sympathy. She stooped and put her lips to the key-hole. "Violet--Violet darling--let me in! Let me be with you!"

Instantly the sobbing ceased, but it was Mrs. Briggs's voice that made answer. "You can't come in, Miss Olga, only unless you're by yourself. Miss Violet's still very upset-like, and she ain't wanting anyone but me."

There was authority in the announcement. Mrs. Briggs was not without considerable strength of character, and she knew how to keep her head in an emergency.

Olga looked at Nick.

"I should wait if I were you," he counselled. "She is sure to want you later on."

She nodded silently, and bent over Cork. The strain of the past few hours was beginning to tell upon her. Her tears fell unrestrained upon the great dog's head.

Nick strolled away to the head of the stairs, and stood there like a sentinel, searching the blurred expanse of sea through the open window with alert, restless eyes.

Several minutes passed; then there came the sound of the key turning in the lock. Olga stood up hastily, dashing away her tears. Mrs. Briggs's head appeared in the aperture.

"Miss Olga," she said in a strenuous whisper, "Miss Violet would like to speak to you if so be as you're alone. But she won't have anyone else."

"There is only Captain Ratcliffe here," said Olga.

"Then p'raps he'll be good enough to wait outside," said Mrs. Briggs, with the air of a general issuing his orders. "You can come in, Miss Olga, and for pity's sake soothe the pore dear as much as you can. She's well-nigh wore herself out."

Olga glanced round for Nick, and found him at her side.

"Look here, Olga," he said, speaking in a rapid whisper, "you are not to lock that door. Understand? I say it!"

She hesitated. "But if------"

"I won't have it done," he said. "You must pretend to lock it. Mind, if I find that door locked, I shall have it forced, and take you away."

"But she may ask me, Nick," Olga objected.

"If she does, you must lie to her," he said inexorably.

Olga abandoned the discussion somewhat reluctantly, anticipating difficulties.

He laid his hand for an instant on her arm as she prepared to enter. "You understand I am in earnest, don't you?" he said.

She looked into his queer, yellow face with a feeling that was almost awe as she answered meekly. "Yes, Nick."

"And don't forget it," he said, as he let her go.

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