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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 16. The Gap
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 16. The Gap Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2143

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 16. The Gap

PART II CHAPTER XVI. THE GAP

"Now, my chicken, to roost!" said Nick.

He turned to give her his paternal embrace, but paused as Olga very slightly drew back from it.

They stood in the dining-room which they had entered on arrival. Max had lounged across to the mantelpiece, and propped himself against it in his favourite attitude. He looked on as it were from afar.

"Please," Olga said rather breathlessly, and she addressed Nick as though he were the only person in the room, "I want to ask you something before we say good-night."

"Something private?" asked Nick.

She put her hand to her throat; her face was ghastly. Her voice came with visible effort. "It concerns--Max," she said.

Max neither moved nor spoke. He was looking very fixedly at Olga. There was something merciless in his attitude.

Nick flashed a swift glance at him, and slipped his arm round the girl. She was quivering with agitation, yet she made as if she would free herself.

"Please, Nick!" she said imploringly. "I want to be strong. Help me to be strong!"

"All right, dear," he said gently. "You can count on me. What's the trouble? Hunt-Goring again?"

She shivered at the name. "No--no! At least--not alone. He hasn't worried me."

She became silent, painfully, desperately silent, while she fought for self-control.

Again Nick glanced across at Max. "Pour out a glass of wine!" he said briefly.

Max stood up. He went to the table, and very deliberately mixed a little brandy and water. His face, as he did it, was absolutely composed. He might have been thinking of something totally removed from the matter in hand.

Yet, as he turned round, the air of grimness was perceptible again. He held out the glass to Nick. "I think I'll go," he said.

"No!" It was Olga who spoke. She stretched out a detaining hand. "I want you--please--to stay. I--I--"

She faltered and stopped as Max's hand closed quietly and strongly upon hers.

"Very well," he said. "I'll stay. But drink this like a sensible girl! You're cold."

She obeyed him, leaning upon Nick's shoulder, and gradually the deadly pallor of her face passed. She drew her hand out of Max's grasp, and relinquished Nick's support.

"I'm dreadfully sorry," she said, and her voice came dull and oddly indifferent. "You are both so good to me. But I think one generally has to face the worst things in life by oneself. Nick, I asked you a little while ago to fill in a gap in my memory--to tell me something I had forgotten. Do you remember?"

"I do," said Nick. Like Max, he was watching her closely, but his eyes moved unceasingly; they glimmered behind his colourless lashes with a weird fitfulness.

Olga was looking straight at him. She had never stood in awe of Nick.

"You didn't do it," she said in the same level, tired voice. "You put me off. You refused to fill in the gap."

"Well?" said Nick. His tone was abrupt; for the first time in all her knowledge of him it sounded stern.

But Olga remained unmoved. "Would you refuse if I asked you to do it now?" she said.

"Perhaps," he answered.

She turned from him to Max. "You would refuse too?" she said, and this time there was a tremor of bitterness in her voice. "You always have refused."

"It happens to be my rule never to discuss my cases with anyone outside my profession," he said.

"And that was your only reason?" A sudden pale gleam shot up in Olga's eyes; she stiffened a little as though an electric current ran through her as she faced him.

"It is the only one I have to offer you," Max said.

He also sounded stern; and in a flash she grasped her position. They were ranged against her--the two she loved best in the world--leagued together to keep from her the truth. A quiver of indignation went through her. She turned abruptly from them both.

"You needn't take this trouble any longer," she said. "I--know!"

"What do you know?" It was Max's voice, curt and imperative.

He took a step forward; his hand was on her shoulder. But she wheeled and flung it from her with an exclamation that was almost a cry of horror.

"Don't touch me!" she said.

He stood confronting her, hard, pitiless, insistent. Of her gesture he took no notice whatever. "What do you know?" he repeated.

She answered him with breathless rapidity, as if compelled. "I know that you made her love you--that when you knew the truth about her you gave her up. I know that you ruined her first--and deserted her afterwards for me. I know that you terrified her into secrecy, and then, when--when her brain gave way and there was no way of escape for you--I know that you--that you--that you--"

Her lips stiffened. She could not say the word. For several seconds she strove with it inarticulately; then suddenly, wildly, she flung out her hands, urging him from her.

"Oh, go! Go! Go!" she cried. "Let me never see you again!"

He did not go. He stood absolutely still, watching her.

But she was scarcely aware of him any longer. For her strength had suddenly deserted her. She was sunk against the wall with her hands over her face, sobbing terrible, tearless sobs that shook her from head to foot.

Nick started towards her, but Max stretched out a powerful arm, and kept him back. "No, Nick," he said firmly. "This is my concern. You go, like a good chap. I'll come to you presently."

"I will not!" said Nick flatly.

He gripped the opposing arm at the elbow so that it doubled abruptly. But Max wheeled upon him on the instant and held him fast.

"Look here," he said, "I'm in earnest."

"So am I," said Nick.

They faced one another for a moment in open conflict; then half-contemptuously Max made an appeal.

"Don't let us be fools!" he said. "It's for her sake I want you to go. I'll tell you why later. If you butt in now, you will make the biggest mistake of your life."

"Take your hands off me!" said Nick.

He complied. Nick went straight to Olga. "Olga," he said, "for Heaven's sake, be reasonable! Give him a chance to set things straight!"

It was urgently spoken. His hand, vital and very insistent, closed upon one of hers, drawing it down from her face.

She looked at him with hunted eyes. "Nick," she said, "tell him--to go!"

"I can't, dear," he made answer. "You've made an accusation that no man could take lying down. You'll have to face it out now."

"But it's the truth!" she said.

"It's a damnable lie!" said Nick.

"Nick," it was Max's voice measured and deliberate, "will you leave me to deal with this?"

Olga's hand turned in Nick's and clung to it. "You needn't go, Nick," she said hurriedly.

"Yes, I'm going," said Nick. "You can come to me afterwards if you like. I shall be in my room."

He squeezed her hand and relinquished it. His yellow face was full of kindness, but she saw that he would not be persuaded to remain. In silence she watched him go.

Then slowly, reluctantly, she turned to Max. He was standing watching her with fixed, implacable eyes.

"Well?" he said, as she looked at him. "Do you really want me to deny this preposterous story?"

She leaned against the wall, facing him. She felt unutterably tired--as if she were too weary to take any further interest in anything. Neither his denial nor Nick's could make the tale untrue.

"It doesn't make much difference," she said drearily.

"Thanks!" said Max shortly.

And then, as if suddenly making up his mind, he came to her and took her almost roughly by the shoulders.

"Olga," he said, "how dare you believe this thing of me?"

She looked at him and her face quivered. "You have never told me the truth," she said.

"And so you are ready to believe any calumny," said Max. His hands pressed upon her; his red brows were drawn together.

At any other moment she would have deemed him formidable, but she was beyond fear just then.

"If you would only tell me what to believe--" she said.

"And if I won't?" He broke in upon her almost fiercely. "If I demand your trust on this point--as I have a right to demand it on every point--what then? Are you going to give me everything except that?"

She shook her head. "No, Max."

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

She answered him steadily enough. "I mean that unless you can tell me the truth--the truth, Max," there was a piteous touch in her repetition of the words--"I can never give you--anything."

"Meaning you won't marry me?" he said.

Steadily she answered him. "Yes, I mean just that."

He continued to hold her before him. His face grew harder, grimmer than before. "And you think I will suffer myself to be thrown over?" he said.

That pierced her lethargy, quickened her to resistance. "I think you have no choice," she said.

Max's jaw set itself like an iron clamp. "There you show your absolute ignorance," he said, "of me--and of yourself."

"You couldn't hold me against my will," she said quickly.

"Could I not?" said Max.

Something of fear crept about her heart, hastening its beat. But she faced him unflinching. "No," she said.

He was silent; but she had an inexplicable feeling that the green eyes were drawing her gradually, mercilessly, against her will. Yet she resisted them, summoning all her strength.

And then she became aware that his hold had tightened and grown close. She awoke to the fact very suddenly, as one coming out of a trance, and swiftly, nervously, she sought to free herself.

Instantly his arms were about her. He gathered her to him with a force that compelled. He crushed her lips with his own in kisses so fierce and so passionate that she winced from them in actual pain, not sparing her till she sank in his arms, spent, unresisting, crying against his shoulder.

He made no attempt to comfort her; his hold was sustaining, but grimly devoid of all tenderness. Later she knew that he had fought a desperate battle for her happiness and his own, and it was no moment for relaxation.

He spoke to her at last, curtly, over her bowed head, "And you think--you dare to think--that I have ever loved another woman."

"I don't know what to think," she whispered, hiding her face lower on his breast.

"Then think this," he said, and there was a ring of iron in his voice, "that for no slander whatever will I hold myself answerable, either to you or to anyone else. I shall not defend myself from it. I shall not deny it. And because of it I will not suffer myself to be jilted. Is that enough?"

He spoke with indomitable resolution, but there must have been some yielding quality in the last words, for she suddenly found strength to lift her head again and turn her face up to his.

"Max," she said imploringly, "I believe I have wronged you, and I do beg you to forgive me.--But, Max, there is one thing that--for my peace of mind--you must tell me. Please, Max, please!"

She set her clasped hands against him, beseeching him with her whole soul. He looked down into her eyes, and his own were no longer stern but quite impenetrable. He spoke no word.

"I have always known," she said, faltering a little under his look, "always felt that there was something--something strange about--Violet's sudden death. Max, tell me--tell me--she didn't--make away with herself?"

She uttered the question with a shrinking dread that seemed to run shuddering through her whole body. And because he did not instantly reply, her face whitened with a sick suspense.

"Oh, she didn't!" she gasped imploringly. "Say she didn't! I--I think it would break my heart if--if--if--that--had happened."

"You must remember that she was not responsible for her actions," Max said.

Olga was trembling all over. "Then she did?"

He avoided the question. "Her life was over," he said, "in any case."

"Then she did?" Again sharply she put the question, as though goaded thereto by an intolerable pain. "Max," she said, "oh, Max, I could bear anything better than that! I don't believe it of her! I can't believe it!"

"But why torture yourself in this way?" he said. "What do you gain by it?"

"Because I must, I must!" she answered feverishly. "I dream about her night after night--night after night. My mind is never at rest about her. She seems to be calling to me, trying to tell me something. And I never can get to her or hear what it is. It's all because I can't remember. And sometimes I feel as if I shall go mad myself with trying."

"Olga!" Briefly and sternly he checked her. "You are getting hysterical. Don't you think there has been enough of this? If you go any further, you will regret it."

"But I must know!" she said. "Max, was it so? Did she take her own life?"

"She did not!"

Quietly he answered her, so quietly that for a moment she could hardly believe that he had given a definite reply. She stared at him incredulously.

"You are telling me the truth?" she said piteously at length. "You won't try to deceive me any more?"

"I have told you the truth," he said.

"Then--then--" She still gazed at him with wide eyes, eyes in which a certain horror gradually dawned and spread. "I am sure she did not die a natural death," she said with conviction.

Max was silent, grimly, inexorably silent.

She disengaged herself slowly from him. Her forehead drew itself into the old painful lines. She passed an uncertain hand across it.

As if in answer to the gesture he spoke, bluntly, almost brutally. "If you will have it, you shall; but remember, it is final. Miss Campion was suffering from a hideous and absolutely incurable disease of the brain which had developed into homicidal madness. She might have lived for years--a blinded soul fettered to a brain of raving insanity. What her life would have been, only those who have seen can picture. But, mercifully for her--rightly or wrongly is not for me to say--her torment was brought to an early end. In fact, almost before it had begun, a friend gave her deliverance. She died--as you know--suddenly."

"Ah!" With a cry she broke in upon him. "It was--the pain-killer!"

"It was." He scarcely opened his lips to reply, and instantly closed them in a single unyielding line. His eyes never left her face.

As for Olga, she stood a moment, as one stunned past all feeling; then turned from him and moved away. "So it was--your doing," she said, in a curious, stifled voice as if she were scarcely conscious of speaking at all.

He did not answer her. The words scarcely demanded an answer.

She reached the table unsteadily, and sat down, leaning her elbow upon it, her chin on her hand. Her eyes gazed right away down far vistas unbounded by time or space.

"It isn't the first time, is it?" she said. "You did it once before. I suppose--" her voice dropped still lower; she seemed to be speaking to herself--"as a Keeper of the Door, you think you have the right."

"Will you tell me what you mean?" he said.

She did not turn her head. She still gazed upon invisible things. "Do you remember poor old Mrs. Stubbs? You helped her, didn't you, in the same way?"

"I?" said Max.

The utter astonishment of his voice reached her. She turned and looked at him. "She died in the same way," she said.

"But--great heavens above--not with my connivance!" he exclaimed.

She continued to look at him, but with that same far look, as though she saw many things besides. "Yet--you knew!" she said.

He made a curt gesture of repudiation. "I suspected--perhaps. I actually knew--nothing."

"I see," she said, with a faint smile. "She just slipped through--and you looked the other way."

"Nothing of the sort!" he said sternly. "I did my utmost--as I have always done my utmost--to prolong life. It is my duty--the first principle of my profession; and I hold it--I always have held it--as sacred."

"And yet--you let Violet's go," she said.

He swung round almost violently and turned his back. "I will not discuss that point any further," he said.

She looked at him with an odd dispassionateness. She still seemed to be searching the distant past. "You never liked her," she said at last slowly. "And she was horribly afraid of you--afraid of you!" A sudden tremor of awakening life ran through the words. The stunned look began to pass. Again the horror looked out of her eyes. "She was so afraid of you that--when she went mad--she tried to kill you. Ah, I see now!" She caught her breath sharply--"You--you were afraid too!"

He remained with his back turned upon her, motionless as a statue.

"And so--and so--" Her eyes came swiftly back to the present and saw him only. The horror in them had become vivid, anguished. She rose and stretched an accusing finger towards him. "That was why you ended her life!" she said. "It was--to save--your own!"

He wheeled round at that and faced her with that in his eyes which she had never before seen there--a look that sent the blood to her heart. "By Heaven, Olga," he said, "you go--rather far!"

He came towards her slowly. There was something terrible about him at that moment, something that held her fettered and dumb before him, though--so great was her horror--she would have given all she had to turn and flee.

He halted before her, looking down into her face with a curious intentness. "You really believe that?" he said. "You can't conceive such a thing as this--utterly and inexcusably wrong as I admit it to be--you can't conceive it to have been done from a motive of mercy?"

She shrank away from him as from a thing unclean. The impulse to escape was still strong upon her, urging her to a wild resistance. She met the pitiless eyes that watched her like a creature at bay. "You never did anything in mercy yet!" she said. "There is no mercy in you!"

"Indeed!" he said, and uttered a brief, grating laugh that made her shudder. "In that case, I'm afraid I can't help you any further. I'm at the end of my resources."

Olga drew herself together with a supreme effort, mustering all her strength. "It is the end of everything," she said. "I can never marry you now. I never want to see you again."

He met her look implacably, with eyes that seemed to beat down her own. "I have told you that I won't submit to that," he said.

She caught her breath with a convulsive movement of protest. Perhaps never before had she so clearly realized the ruthlessness of the man and his strength.

"I can't help it," she said. "I can never marry you. Even if--if we had been married, I could not have stayed with you--after this."

She saw his mouth harden to cruelty at her words, and instinctively she drew back from him; but in the same instant his hands closed upon her wrists and she was a captive.

"Doesn't it occur to you," he said, "that you are bound to me in honour--unless I set you free?"

He spoke with the utmost calmness, but her heart misgave her. She saw herself at his mercy, an impotent prisoner striving against him, vainly beating out her will against the iron of his. In that moment she realized fully that not by strength could she prevail, and desperately she began to plead.

"But you will set me free, Max! You wouldn't--you couldn't--hold me against my will!"

"Couldn't I?" said Max, and grimly smiled. "There is nothing whatever that I couldn't do with you, Olga,--with--or without--your will."

She shivered sharply and uncontrollably, not attempting to contradict him.

"And that being so," he said, "it is not my intention to set you free. There is no earthly reason why you should not marry me, and therefore I hold you to your engagement. That is quite understood, is it?"

His hold tightened upon her. She saw that he meant every word, and her heart died within her. Her strength was running out swiftly, swiftly. Very soon it would be utterly gone. She cast a desperate glance upwards, and made one last supreme effort. "But, Max," she pleaded, "I thought you loved me."

His face was set in iron lines, but she thought it softened ever so slightly at her words. Had she pierced the one vulnerable point in his armour at last? She wondered, scarcely daring to hope.

"Well?" he said.

Only the one word; but somehow, inexplicably, her heart cried shame upon her, as though she had put a good weapon to an unworthy use. She stood before him, trying vainly to drive it home. But she could not. Further words failed her.

"I see," he said at last. "You think out of my love for you I ought to be willing to give you up. Is that it?"

She nodded mutely, not daring to look at him, still overwhelmed with that shamed sense of doing him a wrong.

"I see," he said again. "And--if it would be for your happiness to let you go--I might perhaps be equal to the sacrifice." His voice was suddenly cynical, and she never guessed that he cloaked an unwanted emotion therewith. "But take the other view of the case. You know you would never be happy away from me."

"I couldn't be happy with you--now," she murmured.

He bent slightly towards her as if not sure that he had heard aright. "Do you really mean that?" he asked.

She was silent.

"Olga!" he said insistently.

Against her will she raised her eyes, and met his close scrutiny. Against her will she answered him, breathlessly, out of a fevered sense of expediency. "Yes--yes, I do mean it! Oh, Max, you must--you must let me go!"

But he held her still. "You have appealed to my love," he said. "I appeal to yours."

But that was more than she could bear; the sudden tension snapped the last shreds of her quivering strength. She broke down utterly, standing there between his hands.

He made no attempt to draw her to him. Perhaps he did not wholly trust himself. Neither did he let her go; but there was no element of cruelty about him any longer. In silence, with absolute patience, he waited for her.

She made a slight effort at last to free herself, and instantly he set her free. She sat down again at the table, striving desperately for self-control. But she could not even begin to speak to him, so choked and blinded was she by her tears.

A while longer he waited beside her; then at length he spoke. "If you really honestly feel that you can't marry me, that to do so would make for misery and not happiness; if in short your love for me is dead--I will let you go."

The words fell curt and stern, but if she had seen his face at the moment she would have realized something of what the utterance of them cost.

But her own face was hidden, her paroxysm of weeping yet shook her uncontrollably.

"Is it dead?" he said, and stooped over her, holding the back of her chair but not touching her.

She made a convulsive movement, whether of flinching from his close proximity or protest at his words it was impossible to say.

He waited a moment or two. Then: "If it isn't," he said, "just put your hand in mine!"

He laid his own upon the table before her, upturned, ready to clasp hers. His face was bent so low over her that his lips were almost on her hair. She could have yielded herself to his arms without effort.

But she only stiffened at his action, and became intensely still. In the seconds that followed she did not so much as breathe. She was as one turned to stone.

For the space of a full minute he waited; and through it the wild beating of her heart rose up in the stillness, throbbing audibly. But still she sat before him mutely, making no sign.

Then, after what seemed to her an eternity of waiting, very quietly he straightened himself and took his hand away.

She shrank away involuntarily with a nervous contraction of her whole body. For that moment she was unspeakably afraid.

But he gave her no cause for fear. He bore himself with absolute self-possession.

"Very well," he said. "That ends it. You are free."

With the words he turned deliberately from her, walked to the door, passed quietly out. And she was left alone.

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