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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Faithful Wound Of A Friend
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Faithful Wound Of A Friend Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1548

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 11. The Faithful Wound Of A Friend

PART II CHAPTER XI. THE FAITHFUL WOUND OF A FRIEND

All the social circle of Sharapura and most of the native population usually assembled on the polo-ground to witness the great annual match between the Rajah's team and the officers stationed at the cantonments. It was to be followed by a dance at the mess-house in the evening, to which all English residents far and near had been bidden, and which the Rajah himself and his chief Minister, Kobad Shikan, had promised to attend.

The day was a brilliant one, and Olga looked forward to its festivities with a light heart. The thought of Noel was the only bitter drop in her cup of happiness, but instinct told her that his wound would be but a superficial one. She was sorry on his behalf, but not overwhelmingly so. As Nick had wisely observed, it would be far more fitting for him to wait and marry Peggy Musgrave. They were eminently well suited to each other, and would be playfellows all their lives.

She expected Max to present himself in the course of the morning, and he did not disappoint her. He made his casual appearance soon after Nick had departed for the Palace, and found her in the garden. Not alone, however, for Daisy had arrived before him to see how Olga fared after the previous day's adventure.

Max, strolling out to them, was met by Olga in a glowing embarrassment which he was far from sharing, and introduced forthwith to Daisy as "Noel's brother."

Daisy, who had just been listening to a somewhat halting account of his unexpected arrival the day before, marked her very evident confusion and leaped to instant comprehension. So this was the cause of Noel's reticence! She shook hands with Max with a very decided sense of disappointment, resenting his intrusion on Noel's behalf, and with womanly criticism marvelling that this thick-set unromantic Englishman could ever have held the girl's fancy when Noel, the handsomest officer in the district, had been so obviously at her feet.

She heaved a little sigh for Noel even while she said, smiling, "I have just been hearing of your dramatic arrival yesterday, Dr. Wyndham. You could scarcely have chosen a more thrilling moment."

He smiled also, with slight cynicism. "Yes, there were plenty of thrills for all of us," he said. "Have you heard the latest?"

Daisy's eyes travelled from him to Olga, who stretched out her left hand, bearing Max's ring upon it, and said, very sweetly and impulsively: "Oh, Mrs. Musgrave, I was just going to tell you about it. Please don't think me deceitful! It--it--it only happened last night."

"My darling child!" Daisy said. She took the outstretched, trembling hand and folded it in a soft, warm clasp. Her eyes went back to Max, whose expression became more ironical than ever under her scrutiny. It was as if he observed and grimly ridiculed her jealousy on his brother's behalf. And Daisy's resentment turned to a decided sense of hostility. She discovered quite suddenly but also quite unmistakably that she was not going to like this young man.

She was sure the green eyes under their shaggy red brows saw and mocked her antipathy. There was even a touch of insolence about him as he said: "I'm afraid it's taken your breath away, but it is not such a sudden arrangement as it appears. Strange to say all women don't fall in love with me at first sight. Olga, for instance, did quite the reverse, didn't you, Olga?"

His eyes mocked Olga now openly and complacently. Daisy told herself indignantly that she had never in her life witnessed anything so disgustingly cold-blooded. He positively revolted her. She saw him as a husband, selfish, supercilious, accepting with condescension his young wife's eager devotion, and her congratulations died on her lips. For Daisy was a woman with whom a man's homage counted for much. She had been accustomed to it all her life and its absence was an offence unpardonable. And then suddenly Olga overcame her shyness, and boldly came to the rescue.

"Max, don't make Mrs. Musgrave think you a beast! It isn't fair to me. He isn't a bit like this really," she added to Daisy. "It's all affectation. Nick knows that."

Daisy laughed. The girlish speech helped her, if it did not remove her doubts.

She gave her free hand to Max, saying, "I suppose we are none of us ourselves to strangers, but, since you are engaged to Olga, I hope you will not place me in that category. You are very, very lucky to have won her, and I wish you both every happiness."

Max bowed, still with a hint of irony. "It's nice of you not to condole with Olga," he said. "I feel inclined to myself. Perhaps, if I am not wanted, I may be allowed to go and have a smoke on the verandah. I am expecting my traps to turn up directly," he added to Olga.

"Oh, we must come and see about them," she said. "The _khit will show you your room. Max is going to put up with us now," she told Daisy, with a smile that pleaded with her friend to be lenient.

Daisy's hand still held hers. "That is nice, dear," she said. "I must be getting back to Peggy. Is your _fiance coming to the regimental dance to-night?"

"Oh, Max,"--Olga's eyes shone upon him,--"you will, won't you? But of course you will. Noel will have settled that."

The corner of Max's mouth went down. "Noel is not in the habit of settling my affairs great or small," he observed. "If I go at all, it will be in the little god's train and under his auspices alone. But I warn you I'm not much of a dancer."

"What nonsense!" said Olga. "All doctors dance. It's part of their hospital training."

"Is it?" said Max. "Then my medical education is incomplete. My partners generally prefer to sit out after the first round."

"I shan't sit out with anyone," declared Olga. "It's such a waste of time. One can do that any day."

"So one can," said Max. "I hope you are not hurrying away on my account, Mrs. Musgrave. My business here is not urgent. It will very well wait."

He was evidently in an incurably cynical mood, and Olga gave him up in despair. She went with Daisy to the gate, and, with her arms round her neck, besought her, half-laughing, not to be misled by appearances.

"I was myself," she confessed. "I actually hated him once. But now--but now--"

"But now it's all right," smiled Daisy. "Run back to him, dear child! I should imagine he is the sort of young man who doesn't like to be kept waiting."

That was all the criticism she permitted herself, but Olga, returning slowly to Max on the verandah, was regretfully aware that the impression he had made upon this friend of hers was far from favourable.

"It isn't nice of you, Max," she began, as she reached him. "It really isn't nice of you."

But she got no further than that for the moment, for Max literally lifted her off her feet, holding her fast in his arms while he kissed the colour into her white face, finally lowering her into Nick's favourite hammock and dexterously settling her therein.

"You shouldn't!" she protested feebly. "You shouldn't! And indeed I'm not going to lie here."

"You are going to do as you are told, fair lady," he responded grimly. "What have you been lying awake half the night for?"

"I didn't," she began. "At least--" seeing his look of open incredulity--"it couldn't have been so long as that. And I--I had a lot of things to think about. No, Max, you're not to feel my pulse! Max, I won't have it!"

She pulled desperately, and freed herself. Max thrust his hands into his pockets, faintly smiling, and stood over her, contemplating her.

"Well, tell me all the things you had to think about!" he said.

She shook her head, flushed still and slightly distressed. "No, Max."

He stooped over her, searching her face. "Do you like being engaged, Olga?" he asked.

She sat up quickly and leaned against him, her hands clasped upon his arm.

"I'm happy enough to--to want to cry," she said, a slight catch in her voice.

He held her closely again, her head against his heart. "No, that's not the reason," he said softly into her ear. "Something is bothering you, isn't it?"

She swallowed once or twice and nodded. "I'm--foolish," she managed to utter after a moment.

"Never mind if you can't help it!" he said. "Tell me what it's about!"

But she was silent.

"Afraid I shan't understand?" he questioned.

Her hand nestled into his, but she kept her face down. "I wrote a long, long letter to Dad last night," she remarked irrelevantly, after a pause. "He--I'm afraid he'll be rather surprised."

"I wonder," said Max.

She glanced up for an instant. "Did he know you were coming out here to me?" she asked.

"He did." There was a queer note of dry exultation in Max's reply.

"Oh, Max!" Her head went back to its resting-place. "He thought I didn't like you, you know. What--what did he say?"

"He told me I was a fool," said Max.

Olga laughed. "Dear Dad! I suppose he thought you were wasting your time over a wild goose chase."

"Yes; he didn't anticipate my catching my wild goose, I admit. Kersley on the other hand was so confident that he practically hoofed me out of England. He wants a married partner, you know, so perhaps he was not altogether disinterested."

Again the complacent note sounded in Max's voice.

Olga's fingers closed tightly on his hand. "Is that why you are so anxious to get married?" she asked, in a muffled voice.

Max's fingers responded so swiftly and so mercilessly that she cried out with the pain. "Max! How brutal!"

"You deserved it," said Max without compunction.

"But I didn't! I only asked a simple question," she protested.

"No, you didn't; it was a compound one." He opened his hand and sternly regarded the crushed fingers. "If you develop claws, Olga," he said, "you must expect trouble."

She laughed again. "It isn't a question of developing: they're there--full-grown. Do you remember that day I stabbed you with my darning-needle?"

"I do," said Max. He turned his hand over and showed her a small white scar on the back. "I suppose you never realized that that was the beginning of everything?"

"It wasn't with me!" declared Olga. "I could have slain you that night!"

"Because I told you you ought to be whipped," said Max. "It was quite true, you know. Dr. Jim would have said the same. He would probably have done it too."

"I'm sure he wouldn't!" Olga lay back in the hammock with the scarred hand between her own. "Dad is very just. He would have realized that you were quite insufferable."

"That wouldn't have justified you, my child," maintained Max.

She snapped her fingers at him. "I'd do it again to-day if you were as horrid as you were then."

"Not you!" said Max.

She opened her eyes. "You think I wouldn't dare?"

He looked back at her with composure. "It is more a matter of caring than daring, my dear," he said. "Your heart wouldn't be in it. But you are afraid of me all the same."

She coloured and turned the subject. "When is Sir Kersley going to make you his partner?"

"Directly I return," said Max.

"And when will that be?"

He considered a moment. "I expect to reach England in a month from now."

"Max!" She sat up again quickly. "Oh, you're not going so soon!" she said.

He put his arm round her shoulders. "But you will be coming back yourself in April. Nick told me so."

"In April! But that's aeons away!" protested Olga.

His eyes looked down into hers, and the old gleam which once she had taken for mockery hovered there. Her own eyes flickered and sank before it. There was something quick and fiery in it that she could not meet.

"I'll take you back with me," he said, "if you will come."

She started a little. "Oh, no!" she said.

"Why 'Oh, no'?" he enquired.

She was silent for a moment, her face downcast. "I couldn't leave Nick--possibly--out here," she said then.

"Why not? Can't the little god take care of himself?"

"No. And I wouldn't let him if he could. I shouldn't feel easy about him. He--he--I feel as if he is trying to walk a tight rope every day."

"It's a sort of thing he ought to do very well, I should say," observed Max. "But what is he doing it for?"

She looked up. "He thinks he is getting on splendidly," she said. "He and the Rajah are such friends! But the Rajah isn't everybody, and I'm not sure even of him. Someone tried to blow up the fort with a bomb not so very long ago."

"Oh, that's the game, is it?" said Max. "You think a similar little joke might be played on Nick, and if so you want to be there to see."

She smiled faintly, in a sense relieved that he did not treat the matter too seriously. "It makes one a little nervous for him," she said, "though of course there may be no reason for it."

"I see," said Max. "It's just a nightmare, is it?"

He was watching her intently, and under his look her heart quickened a little.

"It may be all nonsense, yes," she admitted. "But in any case I won't leave Nick out here. He is in my special charge."

He laughed. "Well, there's no appealing against that. You will be home in April then. Will you marry me on Midsummer Day?"

Olga's eyelids flickered and fell. "I must think about it," she said.

He pinched her cheek. "Say Yes," he said.

She turned her face impulsively; her lips just touched his hand. "I wonder if I shall, Max," she said.

"Say Yes," he repeated, still softly but with insistence.

She leaned her head against him. "I'd like to say Yes," she said. "But somehow--somehow--I have a feeling that--that--"

"My dear," said Max very practically, "don't be silly!"

She turned and clung to him very tightly. "Max, I--I've got something--on my mind."

His arm, very steady and strong, grew close about her. "Tell me!" he said.

Haltingly she complied. "You will think me morbid. I can't help it. Max, all last night--all last night--I felt as if--as if a spirit were with me--calling--calling--calling, trying to make me understand something, trying to--to warn me--of some danger--I couldn't see."

She broke off in tears. It seemed impossible to put the thing into words. It was so intangible yet in her eyes so portentous. Max's hand was on her head, stilling her agitation. She wondered if he thought her very absurd, but he did not leave her long in doubt.

"There's nothing to cry about, my dear," he said. "Your nerves were a bit strung up after the tiger episode, that's all. They will quiet down in a day or two. All the same"--his hand pressed a little--"I'm glad you told me. A trouble shared is only half a trouble, is it? And I have a right to all your troubles now."

He took her handkerchief, and dried her eyes with the utmost kindness; then turned her face gently upwards.

"Is that quite all?" he asked.

She tried to smile, with quivering lips.

"Not quite?" he questioned. "Come, I may as well know, mayn't I?"

"I don't know that there is anything gained by telling you," she said. "You never liked talking about your cases to me."

He frowned a little. "My dear girl, what particular case is it you have on your mind?"

She hesitated. "You won't be vexed?"

"Vexed? No!" he said; but he continued to frown slightly notwithstanding.

"I hope you won't be," Olga said, "because I simply can't argue about it. Max, I sometimes think to myself that if--you hadn't known--and Violet hadn't come to know--about--about her mother--things might have been--very different."

"Meaning I should have fallen in love with her?" said Max.

She nodded. "It may be a breach of confidence, but--I think I'll tell you now. Max, she cared for you."

She spoke the words with an effort, her eyes turned from him. Perhaps she was afraid that she might encounter cynicism in the vigilant green eyes, and she could not have endured it at that moment.

But at least there was none in his voice when he said: "Yes, I know she did. That was what made her hate me so badly afterwards. I am very sorry, Olga; but, for your comfort let me tell you this. I should never--under any circumstances--have come to care for her. You won't like me for saying it, but she was never more to me than a very interesting case, and, apart from medical investigation, she would simply not have existed so far as I was concerned. She didn't appeal to me."

Olga winced a little. "Oh, Max, but she was so beautiful!" she urged wistfully.

He made a slight gesture of impatience. "I don't dispute it. But what of it? My brain is not the sort to be turned by beauty. There was too much of it for my taste. She was exotic. That type of beauty gives me indigestion."

Olga looked at him reproachfully. "You didn't like her, Max?"

"Not much," said Max.

She made a movement as if she would withdraw herself from him, but he quietly and very resolutely held her still. "Although you knew she cared for you!" she said.

"Yes, in spite of that;" said Max. "In fact, I felt a bit vexed with her for complicating matters in that fashion. Goodness knows I never gave her the smallest reason for it!"

Olga laughed faintly, with an unwonted touch of bitterness. "It's a pity women are such doting fools," she said.

He looked at her attentively. "Did you say that?" he asked.

She met his look, not without defiance. "Yes, and I meant it too. It's such a wicked waste. And I think--- I think--in her case it was something far worse. I believe it was that which in a very great measure helped to unhinge her mind."

"How could I help it?" demanded Max almost fierily. "I never wanted her to care."

"That was just the cruel part of it," said Olga. "It was just your utter indifference that broke her heart."

"Good heavens!" said Max.

He let her go very abruptly and leaned against one of the verandah posts as if he needed support.

Olga tilted herself over the side of the hammock and stood up. "You couldn't help not caring," she said. "But--you might have been a little kinder. You needn't have made her hate and fear you."

Max surveyed her grimly from under drawn brows. "My dear," he said, "you simply don't know what you are talking about."

That fired her. A quiver of passion went suddenly through her. She faced him as she had faced him in the old days with a courage that sustained itself.

"Indeed, I know!" she said. "Better than it is in your power to understand. Oh, I know now what made her--hate you so."

The last words came with a rush, almost under her breath; but they were fully audible to the man lounging before her.

He did not speak at once, and yet he did not give the impression of being at a loss. He continued to lounge while he contemplated her with eyes of steady inscrutability.

He spoke at length with extreme deliberation. "And so you want to take me to task for breaking her heart, do you?"

"She was my friend," said Olga quickly.

He stood up slowly. "And would you have liked it better if I had made love to her?"

She flinched as if that stung. "No--no! But you might have been kind--you might have been kind--since you knew she cared. If you hadn't made such a study of her, she would never have looked your way. That was the cruel part of it--the dreadful, cold-blooded part."

"What do you mean by kind?" said Max. "You don't seem to realize that the poor girl was mad. If I had been soft with her she would have been beyond my control at once."

"Oh, but she wasn't mad then," Olga's hands clasped each other tightly. "Max," she said, and there was no longer indignation in her voice--it held only pain, "I'm afraid you and I have a good deal to answer for."

"Perhaps," said Max. He was frowning still; but he did not appear angry. She did not wholly understand either his look or tone. "I suppose she thought I treated her badly," he said.

Olga nodded silently.

"She told you so?" His voice sounded stern; yet, still he did not seem to be angry.

"No, never." Almost involuntarily she answered him. "But she did say--once--that you cared only for your profession, that it was not in you to--to worship any woman."

"And you think that too?" he said.

His voice was softer now; it moved her subtly. She turned her face away from him and stifled a sob in her throat.

"No; but, Max--to build our life-happiness on--on the ruin of hers; that--that--is what troubles me."

"But my dear girl!" he said. He took her two hands clasped into his. "I can't reason with you, Olga," he said. "You are quite unreasonable, and you know it. If you were any other woman, I should say that you felt in the mood for a good cry and so were raking up any old grievance for a pretext. As you are you, I won't say that. But I absolutely prohibit crying in my presence. If you want to indulge in tears, you must wait till I am out of the way."

She smiled at him faintly. "Max, I--I loved her-so; and I wasn't even with her--when she died."

Max was silent, suddenly and conspicuously silent, so that she knew on the instant that he had no sympathy to bestow on this point.

Yet an inner longing that was passionate urged her to brave his silence. Pleadingly she raised her face to his.

"Max, you were there, I know. Tell me--tell me about it!"

But he looked straight back at her with eyes that told her nothing, and she saw that his face was hard. For a little she tried to withstand him, mutely beseeching him; but at length her eyes fell before his.

And then Max spoke, briefly yet not unkindly. "My dear Olga, believe me, in nine cases out of ten it is better to forget those things that are behind; and this is one of the nine. I can't tell you anything on that subject, so we had better regard it as closed."

It was a bitter disappointment to her; but she saw that there was no appealing against his decision. She made as though she would turn away.

But he stopped her with quiet mastery. "No, I won't have that," he said. "I am not so cold-blooded as you think. I haven't hurt you--really, Olga!"

A note of tenderness sounded in his voice. She yielded to him, albeit under protest.

"But you have!" she said.

He held her in his arms again. He kissed her drooping lips. "Well, if I have," he said, "it's the faithful wound of a friend. Can't you forgive it?"

That Max should ever ask forgiveness was amazing. Her bitterness went out like the flare of a match. She laid her head against his neck.

"Max--dear, I didn't mean to be horrid!"

"You couldn't be if you tried," he said.

She clung faster to him. "How can you say so? I've hardly ever been anything else to you."

"When are you going to reform?" said Max, with his lips against her forehead.

"Now," said Olga into his neck.

"Really?" Max's voice came down to her very softly. "Then--won't you say Yes to the Midsummer Day project?"

She was silent for a little, as if considering the matter or summoning her resolution. Then with sudden impulse she lifted her face fully to his.

"Yes, Max," she said.

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