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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Chaperon
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Chaperon Post by :crozierdirk Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1386

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Chaperon


"It's very kind of Olga to provide us with distractions," said Nick, as he dropped into an arm-chair, with a cigar, "but I almost think we are better off without them. If I see much of that girl, it will upset my internal economy. Is she real by any chance?"

"Haven't you ever seen her before?" asked Max.

"Several times, but never for long together. Jove! What a face she has!" He turned his head sharply, and looked up at Max who stood on the hearth-rug. "You're not wildly enthusiastic over her anyhow," he observed. "Are you really indifferent or only pretending?"

"I?" The corners of Max's mouth went down. He stuffed his pipe into one of them and said no more.

Nick continued to regard him with interest for some seconds. Suddenly he laughed. "Do you know, Wyndham," he said, "I should awfully like to give you a word of advice?"

"What on?" Max did not sound particularly encouraging. He proceeded to light his pipe with exceeding deliberation. He despised cigars.

Nick closed his eyes. "In my capacity of chaperon," he said. "It's a beastly difficult position by the way. I'm weighed down by responsibility."

"So I've noticed," remarked Max drily.

"Well, you haven't done much to lighten the burden," said Nick. "I suppose you haven't realized yet that I am one of the gods that control your destiny."

"Well, no; I hadn't." Max leaned against the mantelpiece and smoked, with his face to the ceiling. "I knew you were a species of deity of course. I've been told that several times. And I humbly beg to offer you my sympathy."

"Thanks!" Nick's eyes flashed open as if at the pulling of a string. "If it isn't an empty phrase, I value it."

"I don't deal in empty phrases as a rule," said Max.

"Quite so. Only with a definite end in view? I hold that no one should ever do or say anything without a purpose."

"So do I," said Max.

Nick's eyes flickered over him and closed again. "Then, my dear chap," he said, "why in Heaven's name make yourself so damned unpleasant?"

"So what?" said Max.

"What I said." Coolly Nick made answer. "It's not an empty phrase," he added. "You will find a meaning attached if you deign to give it the benefit of your august consideration."

Max uttered a grim, unwilling laugh. "I suppose you are privileged to say what you like," he said.

"I observe certain limits," said Nick.

"And you never make mistakes?"

"Oh, yes, occasionally. Not often. You see, I'm too well-meaning to go far astray," said Nick, with becoming modesty. "You must remember that I'm well-meaning, Wyndham. It accounts for a good many little eccentricities. I think you were quite right to make her extract that needle. I should have done it myself. But you are not so wise in resenting her refusal to kiss the place and make it well. I speak from the point of view of the chaperon, remember."

"Who told you anything about a needle?" demanded Max, suddenly turning brick-red..

"That's my affair," said Nick.

"And mine!"

"No, pardon me, not yours!" Again his eyes took a leaping glance at his companion.

Doggedly Max faced it. "Did she tell you?"

"Who?" said Nick.

"Olga." He flung the name with half-suppressed resentment. His attitude in that moment was aggressively British. He looked as he had looked to Olga that afternoon, undeniably formidable.

But Nick remained unimpressed. "I shan't answer that question," he said.

"You needn't," said Max grimly.

"That's why," said Nick.

"Oh! I see." Max's eyes searched him narrowly for a moment, then returned to the ceiling. "Does she think I'm in love with her?" he asked rather curtly.

"Well, scarcely. I shouldn't let her think that at present if I were you. In my opinion any extremes are inadvisable at this stage."

"I suppose you know I am going to marry her?" said Max.

"Yes, I've divined that."

"And you approve?"

"I submit to the inevitable," said Nick with a sigh.

Max smiled, the smile of a man who faces considerable odds with complete confidence. "She doesn't--at present."

Nick's grin of appreciation flashed across his yellow face and was gone. "No, my friend. And you'll find her very elusive to deal with. You will never make her like you. I suppose you know that."

"I don't want her to," said Max.

"You make that very obvious," laughed Nick. "It's a mistake. If you keep bringing her to bay, you'll never catch her. She's always on her guard with you now. She never breathes freely with you in the room, poor kid."

"What is she afraid of?" growled Max.

"You know best." Nick glanced up again with sudden keenness. "Don't harry the child, Wyndham!" he said, a half-whimsical note of pleading in his voice. "If you know you're going to win through, you can afford to let her have the honours of war. There's nothing softens a woman more."

"I don't mean to harry her." Max turned squarely round upon him. "But neither have I the smallest intention of fetching and carrying for her till she either kicks me or pats me on the head. I shouldn't appreciate either, and it's a method I don't believe in."

"There I am with you," said Nick. "But for Heaven's sake, man, be patient! It's no joke, I assure you, if the one woman takes it into her head that you are nothing short of a devouring monster. She will fly to the ends of the earth to escape you sooner than stay to hear reason."

Max smiled in his one-sided fashion. "Has that been your experience?"

Nick nodded. There was a reminiscent glitter in his eyes. "My courtship represented two years' hard labour. It nearly killed me. However, we've made up for it since."

"I don't propose to spend two years over mine," said Max.

Nick's eyes flashed upwards, meeting those of the younger man with something of the effect of a collision. His body however remained quite passive, and his voice even sounded as if it had a laugh in it as he made response.

"I think you're a decent chap," he said, "and I think you might make her happy; but I'm damned if she shall marry any man--good, bad, or indifferent--before she's ready."

"You also think you could prevent such a catastrophe?" suggested Max cynically.

Nick grinned with baffling amiability. "No, I don't think. I know. Quite a small spoke is enough to stop a wheel--even a mighty big wheel--if it's going too fast."

And again, more than half against his will, Max laughed. "You make a very efficient chaperon," he said.

"It's my speciality just now," said Nick.

He closed his eyes again peaceably, and gave himself up to his cigar.

Max, his rough red brows drawn together, leaned back against the mantelpiece and smoked his pipe, staring at the opposite wall. There was no strain in the silence between them. Both were preoccupied.

Suddenly through the open window there rippled in the fairy notes of a mandolin, and almost at once a voice of most alluring sweetness began to sing:

"O, wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee.
Or did misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'."

"Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desert were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there.
Or were I monarch o' the globe,
Wi' thee to reign, wi' thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen."

As the song died out into the August night, Nick rose. "That girl's a siren," he said. "Come along! We're wasting our time in here."

Max stooped laconically to knock the ashes from his pipe. His face as he stood up again was quite expressionless. "You lead the way," he said. "Are you going to leave your cigar behind? I suppose cigarettes are allowed?"

"I should think so, as the lady smokes them herself." Nick opened the door with the words, but paused a moment looking back at his companion quizzically. "Good luck to you, old chap!" he said.

Max's hand came out of his pocket with a jerk. He still had it bandaged, but he managed to grip hard with it nevertheless. But he did not utter a word.

They passed into the drawing-room with the lazy, tolerant air of men expecting to be amused; and Olga, with all her keenness, was very far from suspecting aught of what had just passed between them.

She and Violet were both near the open window, the latter with her instrument lying on her knee, its crimson ribbons streaming to the floor. She herself was very simply attired in white. The vivid beauty of her outlined against the darkness of the open French window was such as to be almost startling. She smiled a sparkling welcome.

"Dr. Wyndham, I've decided to call you Max; not because I like it,--I think it's hideous,--but because it's less trouble. I thought it as well to explain at the outset, so that there should be no misunderstanding."

"That is very gracious of you," said Max.

"You may regard it exactly as you please," she said majestically, "so long as you come when you're called. Allegretto, why do you move? I like you sitting there."

"I promised to go and say good-night to the boys," said Olga, who had sprung up somewhat precipitately at Max's approach. "Sit on the sofa, Nick, and keep a corner for me! I'm coming back."

She was gone with the words, a vanishing grey vision, the quick closing of the door shutting her from sight.

Violet leaned back in her chair, and dared the full scrutiny of Max's eyes.

"What a disturber of the peace you are!" she said. "What did you want to come here for before you had finished your smoke?"

"That was your doing," said Nick. "You literally dragged us hither. I'm inclined to think it was you who disturbed the peace."

"I?" She turned upon him. "Captain Ratcliffe--"

"Pray call me Nick!" he interposed. "It will save such a vast amount of trouble as well as keep you in the fashion."

She laughed. "You're much funnier than Max because you don't try to be. What do you mean by saying that I dragged you here? Was it that silly old song?"

"In part," said Nick cautiously.

"And the other part?"

"I won't put that into words. It would sound fulsome."

"Oh, please don't!" she said lightly. "And you, Max, what did you come for?"

He seated himself in the chair which Olga had vacated. "I thought it was time someone came to look after you," he said.

"How inane! You don't pretend to be musical, I hope?"

He leaned back, directly facing her. "No," he said. "I don't pretend."

"Never?" she said.

He smiled in his own enigmatical fashion. "That is the sort of question I never answer."

She nodded gaily. "I knew you wouldn't. Why do you look at me like that? I feel as if I were being dissected. I don't wonder that Olga runs away when she sees you coming. I shall myself in a minute."

He laughed. "Surely you are accustomed to being looked at!"

"With reverence," she supplemented, "not criticism! You have the eye of a calculating apothecary. I believe you regard everybody you meet in the light of a possible patient."

"Naturally," said Max. "I suppose even you are mortal."

"Oh, yes, I shall die some day like the rest of you," she answered flippantly. "But I shan't have you by my death-bed. I shouldn't think you had ever seen anybody die, have you?"

"Why not?" said Max.

"Nobody could with you standing by. You're too vital, too electric. I picture you with your back against the door and your arms spread out, hounding the poor wretch back into the prison-house."

Max got up abruptly and moved to the window. "You have a vivid imagination," he said.

She laughed, drawing her fingers idly across the strings of her mandolin.

"Quite nightmarishly so sometimes. It's rather a drawback for some things. How are you enjoying that book of mine? Do you appreciate the Arabian Nights' flavour in modern literature?"

"It's a bit rank, isn't it?" said Max.

She laughed up at him. "I should have thought you would have been virile enough to like rank things. To judge by the tobacco you smoke, you do."

"Poisonous, isn't it?" said Nick. "I suppose it soothes his nerves, but it sets everyone else's on edge."

Violet stretched out her hand to a box of cigarettes that stood on a table within reach. "You would probably feel insulted if I offered you one of these," she said, "but I practically live on them."

"Very bad for you," said Max.

She snapped her fingers at him. "Then I shall certainly continue the pernicious habit. Do you know Major Hunt-Goring? It was he who gave them to me. He thinks he is going to marry me,--but he isn't!"

"Great Lucifer!" said Nick.

She turned towards him. "What an appropriate name! I wish I'd thought of it. Do you know him?"

"Know him!" Nick's grimace was expressive. "Yes, I know him."


"Rather better than he thinks."

She laughed again, lightly, inconsequently, irresistibly. "He's a fascinating creature. It is his proud boast that he has kissed every girl in the neighbourhood except me."

"What an infernal liar!" said Nick.

"How do you know?" Gaily she challenged him. "It's quite probably true. He is exceedingly popular with the feminine portion of the community. I notice that friend Max maintains a shocked silence."

"Not at all," said Max. "I was only wondering why he had made an exception of you."

She tossed her head. "Can't you guess?"

"No, I can't," he returned daringly. "I should have thought you would have been the first on the list."

"How charming of you to say so!" said Violet. "Perhaps you are not aware of the fact that the sweetest fruit is generally out of reach."

"You might have let me say that," said Nick. "But the man is a liar in any case, and I hope he will give me the opportunity to tell him so."

Violet regarded him with interest. "I had no idea you were so pugnacious. Do you always tell people exactly what you think of them? Is it safe?"

"Quite safe for him," said Max.

"Why?" Violet turned back to him, her fingers carelessly plucking at the instrument on her knee.

Max made prompt and unflattering reply. "Because he's so obviously gimcrack that no one dares do anything to him for fear he should tumble to pieces."

"Many thanks!" said Nick.

Violet's peal of laughter mingled with the weird notes of her mandolin, and Olga, returning, desired to be told the joke.

Nick pulled her down beside him on the sofa. "Come and take care of me, Olga _mia_! I'm being disgracefully maligned. Can't you persuade Miss Campion to sing to us, by way of changing the subject?"

"Who has been maligning you?" demanded Olga, looking at Max with very bright eyes.

He looked straight back at her with that gleam in his eyes which with any other man would have denoted admiration but which with him she well knew to be only mockery.

"I admit it, fair lady," he said. "I threw a clod of mud at your hero. I thought it would be good for him. However, you will be relieved to hear that it went wide of the mark. He still sits secure in his tight little shrine and smiles magnanimously at my futility."

Olga's hand slipped into Nick's. "He's the biggest man you've ever seen!" she declared, with warmth.

"Please don't fight over my body!" remonstrated Nick. "I never professed to be more than a minnow among Tritons, and quite a lean minnow at that."

"You're not, Nick!" declared his champion impetuously. "You're a giant!"

"In miniature," suggested Max. "He is actually proposing to go and kick Major Hunt-Goring because--" He broke off short.

Into Olga's face of flushed remonstrance there had flashed a very strange look, almost a petrified look, as if she had suddenly come upon a snake in her path.

"Why?" she said quickly.

"Oh, never mind why," said Max, passing rapidly on. "That wasn't the point. We were trying to picture Hunt-Goring's amusement. He stands about seven feet high, doesn't he? And your redoubtable uncle--What exactly is your height, Ratcliffe?"

"Nick, why do you want to kick Major Hunt-Goring?" Very distinctly Olga put the question. She was evidently too proud to accept help from this quarter.

"It's a chronic craving with me," said Nick. "But Miss Campion has kindly undertaken the job for me. I am sure she is infinitely better equipped for the task than I am, and she will probably do it much more effectually."

"But not yet!" laughed Violet. "I like his cigarettes too well. Why do you look like that, Allegro? Doesn't he send you any?"

"If he did," said Olga, with concentrated passion, "I'd pick them up with the tongs and put them in the fire!"

Max laughed in a fashion that made her wince, but Nick's fingers squeezed hers protectingly.

"You don't like him any better than I do apparently," he said lightly. "But I suppose we must tolerate the man for Jim's sake. He wouldn't thank us for eliminating all his unpleasant patients during his absence. Now, Miss Campion, a song, please! The most sentimental in your _repertoire_!"

She flashed him her gay smile and flung the streaming ribbons over her arm. There was a gleam of mischief in her eyes as, without preliminary, she began to sing. Her voice was rich and low and wonderfully pure.

In vain all the knights of the Underworld woo'd her,
Though brightest of maidens, the proudest was she;
Brave chieftains they sought, and young minstrels they sued her,
But worthy were none of the high-born Ladye.

"Whomsoever I wed," said this maid, "so excelling,
That Knight must the conqu'ror of conquerors be;
He must place me in halls fit for monarchs to dwell in;--
None else shall be Lord of the high-born Ladye!"

Thus spoke the proud damsel, with scorn looking round her
On Knights and on Nobles of highest degree;
Who humbly and hopelessly left as they found her,
And worshipp'd at distance the high-born Ladye.

At length came a Knight from a far land to woo her,
With plumes on his helm like the foam of the sea;
His vizor was down--but, with voice that thrill'd through her,
He whisper'd his vows to the high-born Ladye.

"Proud maiden, I come with high spousals to grace thee,
In me the great conqu'ror of conquerors see;
Enthron'd in a hall fit for monarchs I'll place thee,
And mine thou'rt for ever, thou high-born Ladye!"

The maiden she smil'd and in jewels array'd her,
Of thrones and tiaras already dreamt she;
And proud was the step, as her bridegroom convey'd
her In pomp to his home, of that high-born Ladye.

"But whither," she, starting, exclaims, "have you led me?
Here's nought but a tomb and a dark cypress tree;
Is _this the bright palace in which thou wouldst wed me?"
With scorn in her glance, said the high-born Ladye.

"Tis the home," he replied, "of earth's loftiest creatures."
Then he lifted his helm for the fair one to see;
But she sunk on the ground--'twas a skeleton's features,
And Death was the Lord of the high-born Ladye!

The beautiful voice throbbed away into silence, and the mandolin jarred and thrummed upon the floor. Violet Campion sat staring straight before her with eyes that were wide and fixed.

Olga jumped up impulsively. "Violet, why did you sing that gruesome thing? Do you want to give us all the horrors?"

She picked up the mandolin with a swish of its red ribbons, and laid it upon the piano, where it quivered and thrummed again like a living thing, awaking weird echoes from the instrument on which it rested.

Then she turned back to her friend. "Violet, wake up! What are you looking at?"

But Violet remained immovable as one in a trance.

Olga bent over her, touched her. "Violet!"

With a quick start, as though suspended animation had suddenly been restored, Violet relaxed in her chair, leaning back with careless grace, her white arms outstretched.

"What's the matter, Allegretto? You look as if you had had a glimpse of the conqueror of conquerors yourself. I shall have to come and sleep with you to frighten away the spooks."

"I don't think I shall ever dare to go to bed at all after that," said Nick.

She laughed at him lazily. "Get Max to sit up with you and hold your hand! The very sight of him would scare away all bogies."

"The sign of a wholesome mind," said Max.

She turned towards him. "Not at all! Scepticism only indicates gross materialism and lack of imagination. There is nothing at all to be proud of in the possession of a low grade of intelligence."

Max's mouth went down, and Violet's face flashed into her most bewitching smile.

"I don't often get the opportunity to jeer at a genius," she said. "You know that I am one of your most ardent admirers, don't you?"

"Is that the preliminary to asking a favour?" said Max.

She broke into a light laugh. "No, I never ask favours. I always take what I want. It's much the quickest way."

"Saves trouble, too," he suggested.

"It does," she agreed. "I am sure you follow the same plan yourself."

"Invariably," said Max.

"It's a plan that doesn't always answer," observed Nick, in a grandfatherly tone. "I shouldn't recommend it to everybody."

"And it's horribly selfish," put in Olga.

"My dear child, don't be so frightfully moral!" protested Violet. "I can't rise to it. Nick, why doesn't it always answer to take what one wants?"

"Because one doesn't always succeed in keeping it," said Nick.

"He means," said Max, a spark of humour in his eyes, "that a champion,--no, a chaperon--sometimes comes along to the rescue of the stolen article. But--from what I've seen of life--I scarcely think the odds would be on the side of the chaperon. What is your opinion, Miss Campion?"

"If the chaperon were Nick, I should certainly put my money on him," she answered lightly.

"And lose it!" said Max.

"And win it!" said Olga.

"Order! Order!" commanded Nick. "Once more I refuse to be the bone of contention between you. You will tear me to shreds among you, and even the great Dr. Wyndham might find some difficulty in putting me together again. Olga, give us some music!"

"I can't, dear," said Olga.

He frowned at her. "Why not?"

She hesitated. "I'm not in the mood for it. At least--"

"Am I the obstacle?" asked Max.

She could not control her colour, though she strove resolutely to appear as if she had not heard.

He turned to Violet, faintly smiling. "Shall we take a stroll in the garden?"

She rose, flinging a gay glance at Olga. "Just two turns!" she said.

He held aside the curtain for her, and followed her out, with a careless jest. The two who were left heard them laughing as they sauntered away. Olga rose with a shiver.

"What's the matter?" said Nick.

To which she answered, "Nothing," knowing that he would not believe her, knowing also that he would understand enough to ask no more.

She went to the piano, put aside the mandolin, and began to play. Not even to Nick, her hero and her close confidant, would she explain the absolute repugnance that the association of Max Wyndham with her friend had inspired in her.

But though she played with apparent absorption, her ears were strained to catch the sound of their voices in the garden behind her, the girl's light chatter, her companion's brief, cynical laugh. For she knew by the sure intuition which is a woman's inner and unerring vision, that jest or trifle as he might his keen brain was actively employed in some subtle investigation too obscure for her to fathom, and that behind his badinage and behind his cynicism there sat a man who watched.

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