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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 17. The Easiest Course
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 17. The Easiest Course Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :3429

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 17. The Easiest Course


"I won't be a party to it," said Nick.

"You can't help yourself."

Bluntly Max made reply. He lounged against the window while his host dressed. The presence of the stately _khitmutgar who was assisting Nick was ignored by them both.

"I can generally manage to help myself," observed Nick.

Max's mouth took its most cynical downward curve. "You see, old chap, this chances to be one of the occasions on which you can't. It's my funeral, not yours."

Nick sent a brief glance across. "You're a fool, Max," he said.

"Thanks!" said Max. He took his pipe from his pocket and commenced to fill it with extreme care. There was something grimly ironical about his whole bearing. He did not speak again till his task was completed and the pipe alight. Then very deliberately through a cloud of rank smoke, he took up his tale. "It is one of the most interesting cases that have ever come under my notice. I am only sorry that I shall not be able to continue to keep it under my own personal supervision."

Nick laughed, a crude, cracked laugh. "It seems a pity certainly, since you came to India for that express purpose. I suppose you think it's up to me to continue the treatment?"

"Exactly," said Max.

"Well, I'm not going to." Again Nick's eyes flashed a keen look at Max's imperturbable countenance. "I held my peace last night," he said, "because matters were too ticklish to be tampered with. But as to keeping it up-----"

Max thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "As to keeping it up," he said, "you've no choice; neither have I. It may be a matter for regret from some points of view, but a matter of the most urgent expediency it undoubtedly is. I tell you plainly, Nick, this is not a thing to be played with. There are some risks that no one has any right to take. This is one."

He looked at Nick, square-jawed and determined; but Nick vigorously shook his head.

"I am not with you. I don't agree. I never shall agree."

Max's cynical smile became more pronounced. "Then you will have to act against your judgment for once. There is no alternative. And I shall go Home by the first boat I can catch."

"And leave her to fret her heart out," said Nick.

Max removed his pipe, and attentively regarded the bowl. After nearly a minute he put it back again and stared impenetrably at Nick. "She won't do that," he said.

"I'll tell you what she will do," said Nick. "She will go and marry that wild Irish brother of yours."

Max continued to look at him. His mouth was no longer cynical, but cocked at a humorous angle. "I say, what a clever little chap you are!" he said. "Whatever made you think of that?"

Nick grinned in spite of himself. Disagree as he might with Max Wyndham, yet was he always in some subtle fashion in sympathy with him.

"I suppose she might do worse," he admitted after a moment. "He's a well-behaved youngster as a general rule."

"Given his own way, quite irreproachable," said Max "He's not very rich, but he's no slacker. If he doesn't break his neck at polo, he'll get on."

"Oh, he's brilliant enough," said Nick. "I suppose he can be trusted to look after her. He's full young."

"He'll grow," said Max.

A brief silence fell between them. Max continued to smoke imperturbably. There was not the faintest sign of disappointment in his bearing. He looked merely ruminative.

Nick was thoughtful also. He sat and watched his man fasten his gaiters with those flickering eyes of his that never seemed to concentrate upon one point and yet missed nothing.

"What are you going to do about Hunt-Goring?" he asked suddenly.

"Do about him?" Max sounded supremely contemptuous. He raised one eyebrow in supercilious interrogation.

"Well, he dealt this hand," said Nick.

"With Mrs. Musgrave's kind assistance," supplemented Max.

Nick made a grimace. "Who told you that?"

"No one." Max blew a cloud of smoke upwards. "You're not the only person with brains, Nick," he observed, with sardonic humour. "But look here! Your friend Mrs. Musgrave is not to be meddled with in this matter. You leave her alone and Hunt-Goring too! He's killing himself by inches with opium, so he won't interfere with anyone for long. And she will prove a useful friend to Noel if allowed to take her own way."

"You really mean to take this lying down?" said Nick.

"It's the easiest course," said Max.

"So far as you are concerned?" Nick abruptly turned in his chair; but his scrutiny was of the briefest. He did not seem to look at Max at all; nor did he apparently expect an answer to his query, for he went on almost immediately. "It's damnable luck for both of you. Old man, are you sure it's all right?"

There was no subtlety in the question. Nick had long since abandoned subtlety in his dealings with Max Wyndham, a fact which indicated that he held him in very high esteem.

Max's response expressed appreciation of the fact. He took his hand from his pocket and carelessly stretched it out. "I am absolutely sure," he said. "Make your mind easy on that point!"

Their hand-grip was silent and brief. It ended the discussion by mutual consent.

At once Max changed the subject. "Is that chap your _khit or your valet or what?"

"He is all three combined," said Nick. "Why? Think I work him too hard?"

The Indian showed his teeth in a splendid smile, but said nothing.

"No, but where's the other fellow?" said Max.

"What other fellow?" Nick thrust his one arm with vigour into his riding-coat.

"The chap I saw here the other night--an old chap. I came along the verandah to tell you there was someone sneaking in the compound, and he shut the window in my face. I presumed he was head-nurse or bearer, or whatever you are pleased to call them in these parts."

"Oh, that fellow!" said Nick. "Quite a venerable old chap, you mean? Rather scraggy--not over-clean?"

"That's the man," said Max.

Nick laughed. "Great Scott! You didn't seriously, think he was my bearer, did you? No, he's an old moonstone-seller who comes to see me occasionally. He's not so disreputable as he looks. I find him handy in the matter of bazaar politics, with which I consider it useful to keep in touch."

Max received the information with a nod. His green eyes were watching Nick's lithe movements with thoughtful intentness.

"How long is this job going to last?" he asked abruptly.

"Heaven knows," was Nick's airy response.

Max was silent a moment; then: "You will send her away if it gets too hot?" he said.

Nick took up his riding-switch. "It's a tricky climate," he observed, "but I am keeping an eye on the weather. I don't anticipate anything of the nature of a heat-wave at present."

Max grunted. "Are you sure your barometer is a trustworthy one?"

Nick smiled. "I have every reason to believe so." He turned and clapped a kindly hand on Max's shoulder. "All right, old chap. Don't be anxious! I'll take care of her," he said.

Max looked at him. "You had better take care of yourself too," he said.

"Trust me!" laughed Nick.

There came a knock at the door, to which Kasur responded. It was Olga's _ayah_. A few whispered words passed between them, then the _khitmutgar softly closed it and approached Nick.

"Miss _sahib is tired this morning, and cannot ride with the _sahibs_. She asks that you will go to her, _sahib_, before you leave."

Nick glanced at Max. "You had better come too."

But Max shook his head. "No. I'll be on the verandah if she wants me, but I don't think she will."

Nick went to the door in silence; but ere he reached it Max spoke again.


"Well?" Nick paused as if reluctant.

Very deliberately Max followed him. They stood face to face. "You will remember what I have said," Max said, with slow emphasis.

"I'm not very likely to forget it," said Nick.

"And you will abstain from interference in this matter?" Max's voice was emotionless, but it had a certain quality of compulsion notwithstanding.

Nick's eyes darted over him. His whole frame stiffened slightly. "If you think I am going to bind myself hand and foot by a promise, you're mistaken," he said.

"I am only asking you to let matters take their course," said Max, unmoved.

"Circumstances may make that impossible," said Nick.

"They may. In that case, you are free to act as you think fit. But I don't think they will--and--damn it, Nick, it isn't much to ask. It's for her sake."

A tinge of feeling suddenly underran his speech. He flushed slowly and deeply; but he stood his ground.

As for Nick, he turned again to the door with his switch tucked under his arm. "All right," he said. "I accept the amendment."

He was gone with the words, almost as though he feared he had already yielded too far. Probably to no other man would he have yielded a single inch.

The interview had ended in a fashion extremely distasteful to him, yet he entered Olga's presence cheerily, with no sign of discontent.

"Hullo, my chicken! Not riding this morning? Haven't you slept?"

He sat down on the bed with Olga's arms very tightly round his neck, and prepared himself to make the best of a very bad business.

The night before he had soothed her in the midst of her distress with all a mother's tenderness, but by daylight he discarded the maternal _role and resumed his masculine limitations.

"Come!" he said coaxingly to the fair head pillowed against his shoulder. "You're going to be a sensible kiddie now? You're going to forget all yesterday's nonsense? Max won't say any more if you don't. You've just got to kiss and be friends."

Olga little dreamed that thus cheerily he made his last stand for a hope which he knew to be forlorn.

She raised her head and looked at him with eyes that shone with the brilliance which follows the shedding of many tears. "It's no good ever thinking of that, Nick," she said, speaking quickly and nervously. "I've been awake all night, thinking--thinking. But there's no way out. I can't marry him. I can't even see him again. And, Nick,--I want you, please, to give him back his ring."

"My dear, you're not in earnest!" said Nick.

"Yes, yes, I am, dear. And I can't argue about it. My head whirls so. Oh, Nick, why didn't you tell me when I asked you to fill in the gap? It's such a mistaken kindness--if you only knew it--to keep back the truth--whatever it may be."

Nick groaned melancholy acquiescence. "But can't you forgive him, sweetheart? Most women can forgive anything. And you never used to be vindictive."

"I'm not vindictive," she made swift reply. "It isn't that I want to punish him. Oh, don't you understand? He may have acted up to his lights. And even if--if he had been anything but a doctor, I think it would have been a little different. But he--he knew so exactly what he was doing. And oh, Nick, I couldn't possibly marry a man who had done--that. I should never forget it. It would prey on me so, just as if--as if--I had been a party to it!" A violent shiver went through her. She clung closer to him. The horror had frozen in her eyes to a wide and glassy terror.

"Easy, easy!" said Nick gently. "We won't get hysterical. But isn't it a pity to do anything in a hurry? You won't feel so badly in a week or a fortnight. Don't do anything final yet! Put him off for a bit. He'll understand."

But Olga would not listen to this suggestion. "I must be free, Nick!" she said feverishly. "I can't be bound to him any longer. Oh, Nick, do help me to get free!"

"My dear child, you are free," Nick assured her. "But take my advice; don't shake him off completely. Give him just a chance, poor chap! Wait six months before you quite make up your mind to have done with him. You'll be sure to want him back if you don't."

But still Olga would not listen. "Oh, Nick, please stop!" she implored him. "I've been through it all a hundred times already, and indeed I know my own mind. If it were to drag on over six months, I don't think I could possibly bear it. No, no! It must be final now. Nick--dear, don't you understand?"

He nodded. "Yes, I do understand, Olga _mia_; but I think you are making a big mistake. The horror of the thing has blinded you temporarily. You are incapable of forming a clear judgment at present. By and by you will begin to see better. That's why I want you to wait."

"But I can't wait," she said. "It--it is like a dreadful wound, Nick. I want to bind it up quick--quick, before it gets any worse,--to hide it,--to try and forget it's there. I can't--I daren't--keep it open. I think it would kill me."

There was actual agony in her voice, and Nick saw that he had made his last stand in vain. Yet not instantly did he abandon it. Once more he thrust past her defences, though she sought so desperately to keep him out.

"It's not for us to judge each other, is it?" he said. "Be merciful, Olga! Don't you think there may have been--extenuating circumstances?"

She looked at him with quivering lips, and dumbly shook her head.

"Listen!" he said. "When Muriel and I were flying from Wara, I killed a man with my hands under her eyes. It was a ghastly business. I did it to save her life and my own. But--like you--she didn't look at the motive--only at the deed. And in consequence I became a thing abhorrent in her sight. She didn't get over it for a long time. But she forgave me at last. Can't you be equally generous? Or don't you love him well enough?"

Olga's hands clasped one another very tightly. She answered him under her breath. "I expect that's it, Nick, I don't love him any more at all. It has killed my love."

"Then you never loved him," said Nick with conviction.

She made no attempt to contradict him. Only her strained white face seemed to implore him to torture her no further. He saw it, and his heart smote him.

"I hate to hurt you, my chicken," he said. "But, dear, you're making such a hideous muddle of your life. I hate that even worse."

She flung her arms about his neck; she pressed her lips to his yellow face. "Darling Nick, never mind about me, never mind!" she whispered. "I am doing simply what I must do. I can scarcely think or feel yet. Only I know that I must get free. It isn't that I'm hard. It's just that I have no choice. Your case was different. You had to do it. But this--" her words sank, became scarcely audible--"Nick, could anything extenuate--this?"

"God knows," said Nick. He paused a moment, then added: "I sometimes think, if the whole truth were known, there would be an extenuating circumstance for every mortal offence under the sun."

She did not argue the point. She seemed beyond argument. "Very likely," she said. "But really I have no choice. You see, we were such friends--such friends. And then she loved him, while he--he had nothing but a professional interest for her, till he found her case to be hopeless, and then he lost even that. That's what made it so horrible--so impossible. If he had loved her--even a little--I could have understood. But as it was--Oh, Nick, don't you see?"

Yes, he did see. It was useless to reason with her. She was like a captive bird beating wild wings for freedom and wholly unable to gauge its awful desolation when won.

For the second time he had to own himself beaten. For the second time he withdrew his forces from the field.

"Well, dear, I'm sorry," was all he said, but it conveyed much.

When he quitted her presence a little later he carried with him the ring that Max had given her and a brief and piteous message to her lover that he would not try to see her again.

Max received both in grim silence, and within half an hour of so doing he had gone.

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