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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 15. The Spreading Of The Flame
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 15. The Spreading Of The Flame Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1549

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 15. The Spreading Of The Flame

PART II CHAPTER XV. THE SPREADING OF THE FLAME

Certainly Major Hunt-Goring was the last person Olga expected to meet at the Musgraves' dinner-party that night, and so astounded was she for the moment at the sight of him that she came to a sudden halt on the threshold of the drawing-room.

"Hullo!" murmured Max's voice behind her. "Here's a dear old friend!"

Max's hand gently pushed her forward, and in an instant she had mastered her astonishment. She met the dear old friend with heightened colour indeed, but with no other sign of agitation. He smiled upon her, upon Max, upon Nick, with equal geniality.

"Quite a gathering of old friends!" he remarked.

"Quite," said Nick. "Have you only just come out?"

"No, I've been out some weeks. I came after tiger," said Hunt-Goring, with his eyes on Olga, who had passed on to her host.

"You won't find any in this direction," said Nick. "Wyndham bagged the last survivor on Christmas Day, and a mangy old brute it was."

"I daresay I shall come across other game," said Hunt-Goring, bringing his eyes slowly back to Nick.

Nick laughed. "It's not particularly plentiful here. You'll find it a waste of time hunting in these parts."

"Oh, I have plenty of time at my disposal," smiled Hunt-Goring.

Nick's eyes flickered over him. He also was smiling. "Perseverance deserves to be rewarded," he said.

"And usually is," said Hunt-Goring. He held out his hand to Max. "Ah, Dr. Wyndham, I'm delighted to meet you again. You will be gratified to hear that, thanks to your skilful treatment, my thumb has mended quite satisfactorily."

Max looked at the hand critically; he did not offer to take it. "I am--greatly gratified," he said.

Hunt-Goring withdrew it, still smiling. "May I congratulate you on your engagement," he said.

Max's mouth went down ironically. "Certainly if you feel so disposed," he said.

Hunt-Goring laughed easily. "You young fellows have all the luck," he said. "When do you expect to be married?"

"On Midsummer Day," said Max.

"Really!" Hunt-Goring's laugh was silken in its softness. "Your plans are all cut and dried then. Yet, you know, 'there's many a slip,' etc."

"Not under my management," said Max.

He looked hard and straight into the other man's eyes, and turned aside.

Nick had already joined his hostess, and was making gay conversation about nothing in particular.

Noel came in late, acknowledged everyone with a deep salaam, and attached himself instantly to Olga.

With relief she found that he was to take her in to dinner. He was in a mood of charming inconsequence, and under his easy guidance she gradually recovered from the shock of her enemy's appearance on the scene.

"I hear on the best authority that General Bassett is expected in a fortnight," he told her. "We are going to treat him royally. You ladies will have to work hard."

"Max will be on his way Home by then," said Olga, with a sigh.

He laughed. "Well, I shall be left, and I shan't let you grizzle. We must organize a _fete week. You and I will be the head of the committee. I'll come round to-morrow, and we'll draw up a plan to submit to old Badgers; merely a matter of form, you know. He'll consent to anything. We will have a fancy-dress ball for one thing, and a picnic or two, and some races and gymkhanas. Perhaps we might manage some private theatricals."

"Oh, we couldn't possibly!" protested Olga. "We could never get anything up in time."

But Noel was not to be discouraged. He proceeded to sketch out a lavish programme of entertainments with such energy and ingenuity that at length he managed to infuse her with some of his enthusiasm, and the end of dinner came upon her as a surprise.

Will, Hunt-Goring, Max, and Nick sat down to play bridge when it was finally over--at the suggestion of Hunt-Goring, who displayed not the smallest desire to seek her out. It seemed as though all memory of their former relations had passed completely from his mind. Neither by word nor look did he attempt to recall old times.

And gradually Olga became reassured. His fancy for her had quite obviously evaporated. He scarcely so much as glanced her way.

Could it have been mere coincidence that had brought him there? she began to ask herself. Stranger things had happened; and he was plainly on intimate terms with his hostess, rather more intimate than Daisy's manner seemed to justify. But then familiarity with women was one of his main characteristics, as she knew but too well. He had not been able to exercise this much at Weir. She suspected that boredom alone had induced him to pursue her so persistently.

In any case, it was over. He cared for her no more and was at no pains to conceal the fact, which she on her part recognized with profound relief.

She went with Daisy to the drawing-room, leaving the card-players established in Will's especial den. Noel airily accompanied them, and sang a few songs at the piano, as much for his own pleasure as theirs. He was in a particularly charming mood, and was evidently determined to enjoy himself to the utmost.

But he was not minded to give them too much of his society, and presently he slipped away to take a peep at Peggy.

"I shan't wake her," he said; but apparently he found his small adorer awake, for he did not return.

"He's a dear boy," said Daisy.

Olga assented warmly. "I shall love him for a brother."

Daisy smiled faintly. "Poor Noel! I'm afraid that is scarcely the sort of appreciation he wants."

Olga flushed. She was standing near the window, her girlish face outlined against the dark. Very young and slender she looked standing there, scarcely more than a child; and Daisy's heart went out to her in a sudden rush of almost passionate tenderness. She rose impulsively and joined her. She slipped a warm arm round her waist.

Olga glanced at her in momentary surprise, then swiftly responded to the caress. She leaned her cheek against Daisy's shoulder.

"You see," she said, "I met Max first."

"I see, dear," said Daisy. She hesitated a moment. "And Max is your ideal of all that a man should be?" she asked then.

"Oh, no!" said Olga. She gave a little laugh. "No; Nick is that, and always has been. I don't think anyone could idealize Max, do you?"

"But you love him?" said Daisy.

Olga looked at her with clear, direct eyes. "Oh, yes, I love him. But I don't try to think he is nicer than he really is. Nice or horrid, I love him just the same."

"Do you know any horrid things about him, then?" Daisy asked.

Olga laughed again. "I knew the horrid part of him first," she said. "Why, I--I almost hated him once."

"And then you changed your mind," said Daisy.

The love-light glowed softly in Olga's eyes as she answered, "Yes, dear Mrs. Musgrave; he made me."

Daisy uttered a sharp, involuntary sigh. "I hope he is all you believe him to be," she said.

"But why do you say that?" questioned Olga. "I'm afraid you don't like him."

Daisy hesitated. "I am afraid I know too much about him," she said at length.

Olga looked at her in surprise. "Has Noel been telling you things?"

Daisy shook her head.

"Oh, then it's that detestable Major Hunt-Goring!" said Olga, adding quickly: "Please forgive me for running down your guest; but he really is a hateful man."

"I don't care for him myself, dear," said Daisy.

"He has only come here to make mischief," said Olga, with conviction. "I guessed it the moment I saw him. He hates me because--because--" she faltered a little--"because I wouldn't marry him. As if I possibly could!" she ended fierily. "And as if he would have really liked it if I had!"

"Oh, is that it?" said Daisy, in a tone of enlightenment.

Olga nodded. "He's a beast, Mrs. Musgrave. And what has he been telling you about Max?"

Daisy hesitated. She was assailed by sudden misgiving. Was it all a ruse? She did not trust Major Hunt-Goring. She believed him fully capable of vindictiveness, and yet, so subtle had been his strategy, he had not seemed vindictive. He had repeated the story idly in the first place, and, finding she took it seriously, he had advised her to hold her peace. No, she would do him justice at least. She was convinced that he had not been deliberately malicious in this case. It had not been his intention to work evil.

"Tell me what he said!" said Olga.

Her tone was imperative; yet Daisy still hesitated. "Do you know, dear, I don't think I will," she said.

"Please--you must!" said Olga, with decision. "It concerns me as much as it does him."

"I am not sure that it really concerns either of you," Daisy said. "It was just a piece of gossip which may--or may not--have had any foundation."

"Still, tell me!" Olga insisted. "Forewarned is fore-armed, isn't it? And things do get so distorted sometimes, don't they?"

"Well, dear--" Daisy was beginning to wish herself well out of the matter--"it is not a pretty story. You and Nick may possibly have heard of it. Quite possibly you know it to be untrue. Major Hunt-Goring told me it was sheer gossip, and he would not vouch for the truth of it. It concerned the death of your friend Violet Campion."

"Ah!" said Olga. She breathed the word rather than uttered it. All the colour went out of her face. "Go on!" she whispered. "Go on!"

"You know the tale?" said Daisy.

"Tell me!" said Olga.

Reluctantly Daisy complied. "It was whispered that there had been an understanding between them, that the poor girl went mad with trouble, and that--to protect himself from scandal--he gave her a draught that ended her life."

Briefly, baldly, fell the words, spoken in an undertone, with evident unwillingness. They went out into silence, a silence that had in it something dreadful, something that no words could express.

It was many seconds before Daisy ventured a look at the girl's face, though her arm was still about her. When she did, she was shocked. For Olga was gazing straight before her with eyes wide and glassy--the eyes of the sleep-walker who stares upon visions of horror which no others see.

As Daisy moved, she moved also, went to the window, stepped straight out into the night. Dumbly Daisy watched her. She had obeyed her instinct in speaking, but now she knew not what to say or do.

Slowly at length Olga turned. She came back into the room. The glassy look had gone out of her eyes. She appeared quite normal. She went to Daisy, and laid gentle hands upon her shoulders.

"You did quite right to tell me," she said. "It is something that I certainly ought to know."

Her face was deathly, but she smiled bravely into Daisy's troubled eyes.

"My dear, my dear," Daisy said in distress, "I do pray that I haven't done wrong."

"You haven't," Olga said. "It was dear of you to tell me, and I'm very grateful."

She kissed Daisy very lovingly and let her go. There was nothing tragic in her manner, only an unwonted aloofness that kept the elder woman from attempting to pursue the subject.

The return of Noel a few minutes later was a relief to them both. He came in full of animation and merriment, precipitating himself upon them with a gaiety that overlooked all silences. As Daisy was wont to say, Noel was the most useful person she knew for filling in tiresome gaps. He did it instinctively, without so much as seeing them.

In his cheery company the rest of the evening slid lightly by. Olga encouraged him to be frivolous. She seemed to enjoy his society more than she had ever done before; and Noel was nothing loth to be encouraged.

When the card-players joined them, they were busily engaged in drawing up a programme for what Noel termed "the Bassett week," and so absorbed were they that they did not so much as glance up till Nick came between them and demanded to know what it was all about.

Max, cynically tolerant, looked on from afar; and Daisy, who had been feeling somewhat conscience-stricken at his entrance, rapidly found herself detesting him more heartily than ever. She was glad when Major Hunt-Goring drifted to her side and engaged her in conversation, and she more nearly resumed her old intimacy with him in consequence than she had done before.

The party broke up late, as Olga, Noel, and Nick continued their discussion until their elaborate schemes were complete. By that time Max and his host had retired for a final smoke, and had to be unearthed by Nick, who declared himself scandalized to find anyone still up at such an immoral hour.

Olga was standing with Noel, dressed for departure, waiting to go, when Hunt-Goring sauntered up to her.

"Well, Miss Ratcliffe," he said conversationally, "and how do you like India?"

It was the first time he had deliberately accosted her. She glanced up at him sharply, and made a slight, instinctive movement away from him. At once, albeit almost imperceptibly, Noel moved a little nearer to her. She was conscious of his intention to protect, and threw him a brief smile as she made reply.

"I am enjoying it very much."

"Really!" said Hunt-Goring. "And you are engaged to be married, I hear?"

Olga did not instantly reply. It was Noel who answered shortly: "Yes, to my brother. No objection, I suppose?"

It was aggressively spoken. Noel had quite obviously taken a dislike to the newcomer, a sentiment which Olga knew to be instantly reciprocated by the calm fashion in which Hunt-Goring ignored his intervention.

She found him waiting markedly for her reply, and braced herself to enter the arena. "Is it news to you?" she asked coldly.

He laughed his soft, hateful laugh. "Well, scarcely, since you, yourself, informed me of the approaching event some months before it took place."

Noel made a slight gesture of surprise, and the colour rose in a hot wave to Olga's face; but she looked steadily at Hunt-Goring and said nothing.

He went on, smoothly satirical. "I used to think the odds were in favour of Miss Campion, you know. You will pardon me for saying that I don't think there are many girls who could have cut her out."

Olga's face froze to a marble immobility. "There was no question of that," she said.

"No?" Hunt-Goring's urbanity scarcely covered his incredulity. "I fancied she took the opposite view. Well, well, the poor girl is dead and out of the running. I consider Max Wyndham is a very lucky man."

He spoke with significance and Noel's eyes, jealously watching Olga's face, saw her flinch ever so slightly. A hot wave of anger rose within him; his hands clenched. He turned upon Hunt-Goring.

"If you have anything offensive to say," he said, in a furious undertone, "say it to me, you damned coward!"

Hunt-Goring looked at him at last. "I beg your pardon?" he said.

Noel was on the verge of repeating his remark when, quick as a flash, Olga turned and caught his arm.

"Noel, please, please!" she gasped breathlessly. "Not here! Not now!"

He attempted to resist her, but she would not be resisted. With all her strength she pulled him away, her hands tightly clasped upon his arm. And it was thus that they came face to face with Max, sauntering in ahead of his host.

He glanced at them both, but showed no surprise, though both Olga's agitation and Noel's anger were very apparent.

"Look here, you two," he said, "Nick and I can't be kept waiting any longer. We value our beauty-sleep if you don't. And Mr. Musgrave is longing to see the last of us."

"Not at all," said Will courteously. "But Nick has suddenly developed a violent hurry to be gone. My wife is trying to pacify him, but she won't hold him in for long."

"Let us go!" said Olga. She took her hand from Noel's arm, but looked at him appealingly.

"All right," he said gruffly. "I suppose I had better go too."

"High time, I should say," observed his brother. "Good-night!"

Noel did not look at him or respond. He turned aside without a word, and left the room.

Max made no further comment of any sort, but Olga was aware of his green eyes studying her closely. Like Noel she avoided them. She shook hands hurriedly with Will, and went out to Nick and Daisy.

As Max turned to follow her, she heard Hunt-Goring's smiling voice behind him. "Good-bye, Dr. Wyndham! Delighted to have met you again--you and your _fiancee_. I have just been congratulating Miss Olga on her conquest."

Max went out as though the sneering words had not reached him, but his face was so grim when he said good-bye to Daisy that she felt almost too guilty to look at him. She held Olga to her very closely at the last, and saw her go with a passionate regret. Whether she had acted rightly or wrongly she did not know; but she felt that she had wrecked the girl's happiness, and the spontaneity of Olga's answering embrace did not reassure her.

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