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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 10. A Talk In The Open
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 10. A Talk In The Open Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1318

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 10. A Talk In The Open

PART II CHAPTER X. A TALK IN THE OPEN

Noel dined with the Musgraves that night. His mood was hilarious throughout, but he seemed for some reason unwilling to discuss the adventure he had shared with Olga in the temple, and of their rescuer he scarcely spoke at all. He seemed in fact to have practically dismissed the whole matter from his mind, and when he bade them farewell at the end of the evening Daisy acknowledged to her husband that she was disappointed.

"I felt so sure he had begun to care for Olga," she said. "He doesn't often miss his opportunities, that boy."

"Perhaps Olga doesn't chance to care for him," suggested Will, with his arm round his wife's waist. "That does happen sometimes, you know."

She smiled, her cheek against his shoulder. "I can't imagine any girl resisting Noel's charms if he were the first comer--as I fancy he must be," she said.

"I wonder if he is," said Will. "She told me the other night she had never been in love, but she seemed to know so much about the disease that I rather doubted her veracity."

"Fancy your living to call it a disease!" said Daisy, with a faint sigh.

He stooped and kissed her. "Oh, I'm not a cynic, my dear," he said. "Shall we call it an incurable affection of the heart instead?"

"That's almost as bad," she protested.

"I said incurable," pleaded Will. "I ought to know, for I fell a victim to it long ago."

She laughed softly against his shoulder. "Well, if you will have it so, it's very infectious, you know. And I am a victim too."

His arm tightened. "Mine was always a hopeless case, Daisy," he murmured half wistfully.

She turned her lips up to his. "When it attacks old folks--like you and me, dear--it always is," she said.

He kissed her again, lingeringly and in silence. There had been a time of which neither ever spoke when Will's love for his wife had been to her a thing of little value. He had not been the first comer. That time had passed long since, and with it the last of their youth. But though for them romance was no more, they had become lovers in a sense more true. Their lives were bound up together and woven into one by the Loom of God.

Whatever opportunities Noel might have missed that day, he certainly did not permit the thought of them to depress him. With his customary jauntiness, he took his departure; but he did not return straight to his quarters at the cantonments. He turned his steps in the direction of the _dak_-bungalow, whistling in the starlight as he went.

A chilly wind was blowing, and the dust swirled about his feet. The road gleamed white and deserted before him. He swung along it, erect and British, caring nothing for dust or cold. From far away, in the direction of the jungle, there came the desolate cry of a jackal; but near at hand there was no sound but the rush of the wind past his ears and the swish of the dust along the way.

He came at length within sight of the _dak_-bungalow and saw beyond it the lights of the native city. Nick's bungalow, tucked away amongst its trees, was not visible.

"They're horribly near that treacherous hound," he murmured to himself, as he strode along. "I wonder if Nick realizes the risk. They might be murdered in their beds any night, and none of us down at the cantonments any the wiser. The Rajah and old Kobad Shikan would be horrified of course. It's so easy to be horrified--afterwards."

Unconsciously he quickened his steps. Somehow the danger had always seemed remote until that night. Had the day's adventure unsettled his nerves, or had he hitherto always underrated it? How ghastly it would be if--His thoughts broke off short. A figure had detached itself from the vagueness in front of him, and a whiff of rank tobacco smoke came suddenly to his nostrils.

Noel straightened himself and quickened his stride. He had the soldier's instinct for making the most of his height. The square, lounging figure that sauntered towards him looked almost short by comparison.

They met about fifty yards from the _dak_-bungalow. "Hullo!" said Max.

His tone was coolly fraternal, but his hand came out at the same time and Noel remembered the grip of it for some minutes after.

"What on earth have you come out here for?" he said.

Max smoked a pipe in one corner of his mouth and smiled with the other. "Like the girls," he said, "I've come out to get married."

"You're not going to marry Olga!" said Noel quickly and fiercely.

"That's just what I want to talk to you about," said Max. "Shall we walk?" He took his brother by the arm and led him forward. "I thought a talk in the open would be preferable. My hutch in this beastly little inn is not precisely inviting. I go to Nick's bungalow to-morrow."

"The devil you do!" said Noel.

The hand on his arm was not removed. It closed very slowly and surely. "Look here, old chap," Max said, "say what you like to me and welcome, if it does you any good. But there is no actual necessity for you to express your feelings. For I know what they are; and--I'm infernally sorry."

The words were quietly uttered, but they sent a shock of amazement through Noel. He stood still and stared. He had never heard anything of the kind from Max before.

Steadily Max drew him on. "When I wrote you that letter in the autumn, I meant you to do exactly what you have done. I didn't of course anticipate playing such a heathen trick on you as cutting you out. I regarded myself at that time as out of the running. Circumstances which there is no need to discuss had set dead against me, and I had reason to believe that she might need an able-bodied man's protection. Nick is all very well as a moral force, but physically he is a negligible quantity. I didn't fancy the idea of her coming out here with the chance of the aforementioned danger cropping up."

"What danger?" said Noel, abruptly.

Max hesitated a moment. "It's rather a long story. There was another fellow--a great hulking bounder. I was half afraid he might follow her out here and make himself objectionable. I thought you would probably get friendly with her, and she might turn to you for help if she needed it. You're the sort of chap a woman would turn to. And anyhow, I know you're sound fundamentally."

"Do you?" murmured Noel.

Max went on. "At that time I never thought of coming out here myself. It was Nick who first suggested it at a time when I believed my chances to be _nil_. And gradually the idea took hold of me. We had been almost engaged before. And though I didn't believe in my luck any longer, I thought I would have one last shot. Kersley backed me as usual. I am to go into partnership with him when I get back. He urged me to come, even said I owed it to her. I wasn't so sure of that myself, but events have proved him justified. I thought in any case I should only hurt myself and that wouldn't matter much. Afraid I behaved like a selfish ass. But I didn't know how far matters had gone, or even if they were likely to move at all. She isn't the sort of girl that attracts at first sight. It never occurred to me to be attracted till I found out how badly she disliked me. Then I used to bait her, and I liked her spirit. After that--" an odd, tender note had crept into his voice; he stopped abruptly.

Noel set his teeth and tramped along in dogged silence.

For a few seconds Max followed his example; then took up his discourse at the final point. "So I chanced a final throw and came out here; I thought at the worst she could only send me away again, and I should be no more badly off than I was before. Well, I got here, and the first thing. I heard was that Nick was giving a picnic at Khantali, and that there was a man-eater there. My informant was a native groom at the inn. He seemed to believe in the man-eater, and as I had equipped myself with a Winchester with the idea of solacing myself with big game when I had been given my _conge_, I armed myself and went to have a look for him. You know the rest. I must admit I was nearly as staggered as she was when I saw her come out of the temple. As soon as I had a moment for thought, it occurred to me that I should be probably one too many if I presented myself then. It was your chance, not mine; so I decided with your connivance to lie low. This evening I called to see the result. I fully expected to be told that you and she were engaged, and I went prepared to congratulate. But directly I saw her, I knew that it was otherwise. And I realized that my luck had turned."

"She accepted you?" Curt and straight came the words.

"She did." Calmly and deliberately Max made answer. "I had sent her a ring earlier in the day, which little attention, it seems, she had attributed to you."

"Yes; she tried to return it this morning." Noel spoke with his eyes fixed straight ahead.

"She is wearing it to-night," said Max.

Noel tramped on again in silence.

Suddenly he stopped, facing round upon his brother with a gesture that was openly passionate. "Damn it, Max! You're deuced cool, I must say! Aren't there girls enough in England without your posting out here to take the one I want? She's half in love with me already. I'd have won her over in another week--in less! Very likely to-morrow!"

Max stood still. They had nearly reached the gate that led into Nick's compound. The rustle of the cypresses in the night-wind came to them as they faced each other. Noel's hands were clenched, Max's well out of sight in the depths of his pockets.

He did not speak at once, but there was no hint of irresolution in his attitude.

"Yes," he said, after a moment. "You jolly nearly died for her, and if anyone has a right to her, you have. But, my dear chap, you can't get away from the fact that she was mine before you ever met her. I know that now. I didn't before to-night, though so far as I am concerned, she has been the only girl in the world for a very long time. Not knowing it, I'd have been quite ready--I'd be ready now--for you to have her; glad even. But knowing it--well, it rather alters the case, doesn't it? You see," his mouth twisted a little in the old cynical curve, "we can't hand her about and barter for her like a bale of goods. She's a woman; and--whether we like it or not--in these things the woman must have the casting vote."

"It's so beastly unfair!" Noel broke in hotly, boyishly. "Why the devil couldn't you stay away a little longer?"

"And suppose I had!" For the first time Max spoke sternly. "Suppose I had!" he repeated, with eyes that suddenly shot green in the starlight. "Suppose you had won her before I came--suppose you'd been engaged, and I had come along afterwards! What then?"

"You'd have been too late," said Noel, the dogged note in his voice.

"You wouldn't have set her free?" Max flung the question with brief contempt.

"No!" Noel flung back the answer fiercely.

"Not if you had known she cared for me first?" Max's voice was suddenly quiet and chill. It expressed a cold curiosity, no more.

Noel writhed before it. "Confound you, no!" he cried violently.

There fell a sudden deep silence. Max stood quite motionless during the passage of seconds, watching, waiting, while Noel stood before him, fiercely threatening.

Then, very abruptly, as if he had suddenly discovered that there was nothing to wait for, he turned on his heel.

"Good-night!" he said, and walked away.

He went with his customary, sauntering gait, but there was absolute decision in his movements. It was quite obvious that he had no intention of returning.

And Noel made no attempt to call him back. He stood with his black brows drawn, and dumbly watched him go.

At the end of thirty seconds, he wheeled slowly round, and turned his sullen face towards Nick's bungalow. As he did so, there was a slight movement near the gate as of someone stealthily retreating.

Instantly suspicion leaped, keen-edged with anxiety, into his brain. In a flash his former fears rushed back upon him. They were so horribly near the native city, so horribly undefended. He remembered the bomb on the parade-ground, and felt momentarily physically sick.

In another instant he was speeding to the open gate. He turned sharply in between the cypresses, and was met by a white-clad, cringing figure that bowed to the earth at his approach.

Noel stopped dead in sheer astonishment. So sudden had been the apparition that he scarcely restrained himself from running into it. Then, being in no pacific mood, his astonishment passed into a blaze of anger.

"What the devil are you sneaking about here for?" he demanded. "What are you doing?"

The muffled figure before him made another deep salaam. "Heaven-born, I am but a humble seller of moonstones. Will his gracious excellency be pleased to behold his servant's wares?"

It was ingratiatingly spoken--the soft answer that should have turned away wrath; but Noel's tolerance was a minus quantity that night. Moreover, he had had a severe fright, and his Irish blood was up.

"You may have moonstones," he said, "but you didn't come here to sell them. The city's full of you infernal _budmashes_. It's a pity you can't be exterminated like the vermin you are. Be off with you, and if I ever catch you skulking round here again, I'll give you a leathering that you'll never forget for the rest of your rascally life!"

The moonstone-seller bowed again profoundly. "Yet even a rat has its bite," he murmured in a deferential undertone into his beard.

He turned aside, still darkly muttering, and shuffled past Noel towards the road.

Noel swung round on his heel as he did so, and administered a flying kick by way of assisting his departure. Possibly it was somewhat more forcible than he intended; at least it was totally unexpected. The moonstone-seller stumbled forward with a grunt, barely saving himself from falling headlong.

A momentary compunction pricked Noel, for the man was obviously old, and, by the peculiar fashion in which he recovered his balance, he seemed to be crippled also. But the next moment he was laughing, though his mood was far from hilarious. For, with an agility as comical as it was surprising, the moonstone-seller gathered up his impeding garment and fled.

He was gone like a shadow; the garden lay deserted; Noel's bitterness of soul returned. He glanced towards the darkness of the cypresses where they had walked only that morning, and a great misery rose and engulfed his spirit. A second or two he stood hesitating, irresolute. Should he go in and see her? Vividly her pale face came before him, but glorified with a radiance that was not for him. No, he could not endure it. By to-morrow he would have schooled himself. To-morrow he would wish her joy. But to-night--to-night--he drained the cup of disappointment for the first time in his gay young life and found it bitter as gall.

With a fierce gesture he flung round and tramped away.

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