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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 18. One Man's Loss
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 18. One Man's Loss Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :3330

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 18. One Man's Loss

PART II CHAPTER XVIII. ONE MAN'S LOSS

"Oh, damn!" said Noel.

He had made the remark several times before that morning, but he made it with special emphasis on this occasion in response to the news that his brother was waiting to see him.

Hot and cross from the parade-ground, he rolled off his horse and turned towards his quarters. The animal looked after him with a faint whinny of hurt surprise, and sharply Noel flung round again.

The _saice grinned, but was instantly quelled to sobriety by his master's scowl. The horse whinnied again, and tucked a confiding nose under the young officer's arm.

"All right, old man! Here you are!" said Noel.

He fished out a lump of sugar and stuffed it between the sensitive lips that nibbled at his sleeve, kissed the white star between the soft brown eyes, whispered an endearing word into the cocked ear, slapped the glossy neck, and finally departed.

His face resumed its scowl as he entered the room where Max sprawled in a bamboo chair with his feet on another and the petted terrier of the establishment seated alertly on his chest. Max smiled at sight of it and stretched forth a lazy hand.

"Excuse my rising! I daren't incur this creature's displeasure."

Noel took the creature by the neck and removed it. Max's hand remained outstretched, but that he ignored.

"What have you come for?" he demanded gruffly.

"I should have said, 'What can I do for you?'" observed Max to the ceiling. "If you are thinking of having a drink, perhaps you will allow me to join you."

Noel went to the door and grumpily yelled an order. After which he jingled back, unbuckled his sword, and flung it noisily on the table.

Max turned his head very deliberately and regarded him.

His scrutiny was a prolonged one, and Noel finally waxed impatient under it. "Well, what are you staring at me for?" he enquired aggressively.

With a sudden movement Max removed his feet from the second chair and sat up. "Sit down there!" he said.

The words fell curt and sharp, a distinct order which Noel obeyed almost before he knew what he was doing. He dropped into the chair and sat directly facing his brother, a kind of surly respect struggling with the evident hostility of his expression.

His dog, feeling neglected, sprang on to his knees and licked his sullen face.

Max uttered a short laugh that was not unfriendly. "Oh, stop being a silly ass, Noel!" he said. "What on earth do you want to quarrel with me for? It's the most unprofitable game under the sun."

Noel sat stiffly upright, holding the dog at arm's length. "It's no fault of mine," he said.

His eyes were obstinately lowered in a mule-like refusal to meet his brother's straight regard. He looked absurdly like a schoolboy brought up for punishment.

Max considerately stifled a second laugh. "All right, it's mine," he said. "And I've come to apologize. Understand? I've come to make unconditional restitution of my ill-gotten gains. I'm just off to Bombay, to shake the dust of this accursed country off my feet, and to leave you in undisputed possession of the spoil. How's that appeal to you, you sulky young hound?"

Noel's eyes shot upwards at the epithet, though the supercilious good-humour of its utterance made it somehow impossible to raise any furious protest.

The entrance of his servant with drinks helped very materially to save his dignity. He pulled the table to him without rising and began to pour them out.

"Lemon?" he asked briefly.

"No, thanks. I'll have a plain soda. And if you've no objection we will thresh this matter out at once as I have to be off in ten minutes. I suppose you took in what I said just now?"

Noel held out a glass to him, his brown hand not quite steady. "May as well be explicit," he said gruffly.

"Quite so. Then my engagement to Olga Ratcliffe is at an end. Is that plain enough for you?"

Again the boy's eyes glanced upwards, meeting the imperturbable green eyes opposite for the fraction of a second. "Really?" he said.

"Yes, really." Max took a slow gulp from his glass and set it down. "Pleased?" he enquired.

Noel did not answer. His own drink remained untouched at his elbow. "Whose doing is it?" he enquired.

"Hers."

"What! Doesn't she care for you after all?" There was a sudden quiver in the question that belied the studied calm of the speaker.

Max took up his glass and drank again. "She can't stand me at any price," he said.

"Then what have you been doing?" There was no attempt to disguise the fierceness of the query. Noel started forward in his chair with hands clenched, and his dog slid to the ground.

"Take it easy!" said Max. "I'm not going to let you into that secret. It wouldn't be good for your morals. Besides, there's no time to go into that now. All I want to say to you is that there's a clear road in front of you and the odds are all in your favour. Go straight and I believe you'll win!"

Noel leaned nearer. His face was a curious blend of eagerness and resentment. "Do you mean--you've found out--that she'd sooner have me after all?" he blurted out.

Max looked at him, and a queer, half-pitying smile curved his grim mouth. "Yes, I suppose it amounts to that," he said, after a moment.

"Oh, I say!" said Noel.

He got up abruptly, and walked to the end of the room. Coming back, he gave a sharp gasp as of one rising from deep water, and the next moment very suddenly he laughed.

"I say," he said again, speaking jerkily, "is it the sun--or what? I feel as if--you'd hit me between the eyes."

Max nodded towards the table. "Have your drink, boy, and pull yourself together! You haven't won her yet, remember. You've got some uphill work before you still."

Noel stopped at the table, and raised his glass. His hand shook palpably, and the smile on Max's face became almost one of tenderness. He watched him in silence as he drank, then lifted his own glass.

"Here's to your success!" he said.

Noel's eyes came down to him. They had the rapt look of a man who sees a vision. "Oh, man," he suddenly exclaimed, "you don't know how I worship her!"

And then abruptly he realized what he had said and to whom, and flushed darkly, averting his look.

Max got to his feet, and faced him across the table. "You've got to worship her always," he said, and in his voice there throbbed some remote echo as of an imprisoned passion deep in his hidden soul. "She'll need the utmost you can offer."

Noel looked back at him again, and the shamed flush died away. He leaned impulsively forward, suddenly, boyishly remorseful for his churlishness.

"Max! Max, old boy! I'm an infernal brute!" he declared. "I was actually forgetting that you--that you----"

"You're quite welcome to forget that," interposed Max grimly. He moved round the table, and clapped a friendly hand on the boy's shoulder. "I shall make it my business to forget it myself," he said. "But look here, don't be headlong! She isn't quite ready for you yet. I speak as a friend; go slow!"

Noel looked at him, and again the hot blood rose to his forehead. He gripped the hand on his shoulder, and held it fast. "I say, Max," he said, an odd sort of deference in his tone, "she doesn't know--does she--what a much better chap you are than I?"

The corner of Max's mouth went up. "Don't talk bosh!" he said.

"I'm not," persisted Noel. "You're doing what I hadn't the spunk to do. I think she ought to know that."

Max's smile passed from amusement to cynicism. "Do you seriously think a woman loves a man for his good points?" he said.

"No; but you've no right to put her off with an inferior article," persisted Noel.

"My good chap, I! I tell you it was her own choice." Max almost laughed.

"But you care for her?" Noel's dark eyes became suddenly intent and shrewd, and the boyishness passed from his face. "See here, Max, I won't take any sacrifices," he said. "I may be a selfish brute, but I'm not quite such a swine as that. You care for her."

"Which fact is beside the point," said Max. His fingers suddenly answered Noel's grip with the strength of a restraining force. "If there is any sacrifice anywhere," he said, "it's not offered to you, so make your mind easy on that head. As I said before, she won't have me at any price. If she would, I shouldn't be here now. You see," again his mouth twisted, "I'm not so ultra-generous myself. But I don't see why we should both be losers, especially as you had half won her before I came along. So go ahead and good luck to you!"

He disengaged his hand and lightly slapped Noel's shoulder as a preliminary to taking his departure. But Noel, with a swift return to boyhood, caught him by the arms. "I don't know what to say to you, old chap," he said, quick feeling in the words. "You've made me feel like a murderer."

"My dear chap, what rot!"

"No, it's not rot! I've hated you like the devil. I'm beastly ashamed--beastly sorry. I'll do anything to atone--anything under the sun. Give me something to do for you, Max, old boy! I can't stand myself if you go like this."

He spoke impulsively enough, but there was more than mere impulse in his speech. Hot-headed repentance it might be, but it was the real thing.

Max stood still, faintly smiling. "My dear lad, there's nothing you can do for me that you won't do twice as well for yourself," he said. "I'm glad you care for her, and I'm not sorry you hated me for getting in your way. You might let me know when it's time to congratulate. That's all I can think of at the present moment--except, yes, one thing!"

"What?" said Noel.

Max's face hardened somewhat. "That fellow Hunt-Goring," he said. "He's the chap I told you of. Keep clear of him!"

Noel stiffened. "I should like to kill him," he said.

"Yes, but you can't. He's more than a match for you. He once had some hold over Olga--something very slight. I never bothered to find out what. But she has broken away and he is an enemy in consequence. Watch out for him, but don't fall foul of him! He won't worry you for long. He is taking opium enough to kill an ox every day of his life."

"Is he though? Well, no one will weep for him."

"Unless it's Mrs. Musgrave," observed Max drily.

"She doesn't like the bounder," declared Noel with conviction. "Look here; sit down again! I've seen nothing of you yet."

"No, I can't stop, thanks. I've said good-bye to everyone else, and time is up. Don't go and get smashed up at polo! If she doesn't want you now, she will very soon. Bear that in mind!"

Noel's dark eyes shone. "The only risks I'm likely to take would be for her safety. I wish to Heaven Ratcliffe could be made to see the danger they are in."

Max smiled a little. "I've been talking to him. We touched on that point. He knows--rather more on the subject than we do."

"But he makes light of it," Noel protested. "The place is infested with _budmashes and he rather encourages them than otherwise. I myself kicked an old blackguard of a moonstone-seller--or so he described himself--off his premises only the other night."

Max broke into a laugh. "Did you though?"

"Yes. What is there to laugh at? Wouldn't you have done the same? And when I told Nick the day after, he described the old beggar as a friend of his."

Max was still laughing. "What a devil of a fellow you are! I've seen the old gentleman myself. I rather think he is a friend. How did he take the kicking?"

"Oh, I don't know. He cursed a bit and went. What's the joke, I say?"

Noel's voice was imperious. He was always somewhat impatient of matters beyond his comprehension. But Max turned the subject off.

"You're such a peppery chap--always wanting to fight someone. Well, I must be gone. You'll remember not to fight Hunt-Goring?"

"No. I shan't fight the brute unless he interferes." Noel followed him to the door and stood a moment. "I say, Max," he suddenly said, "was this affair Hunt-Goring's doing?"

"What affair?" Max spoke as one bored with the subject.

But Noel persisted. "Was it thanks to Hunt-Goring that this split with Olga came about?"

Max faced about. There was a very peculiar smile in his green eyes. "Well," he said very deliberately, "I don't say Hunt-Goring's influence has been exactly a genial one. But that fact in itself would not have much difference. The main reason is the one I have given you. If you are not satisfied with that--then you will never be satisfied with anything--and you won't deserve to be." He held out his hand. "Good-bye, lad! And again--good luck!"

Noel wrung the hand. They looked each other in the eyes, and Noel spoke impulsively as his habit was, but with genuine feeling. "Good-bye, old chap! I hope you'll get to the tip-top of the tree and stay there." He added, seeing Max's mouth go down, "But I know very well there's a bigger thing than success in the world, and if I can ever help you to it--by God, old boy, I will!"

He said it hurriedly, expecting it to be received with irony. But there was no trace of cynicism left in Max's face as he gave him a final grip, and turned away with the one word: "Thanks!"

When he had gone, Noel returned to the room with sober gait, and paused in the middle of it to pick up his sword.

"I wonder if he cares much," he murmured half aloud.

He stood by the table with eyes absently fixed, going over in his mind the conversation that had just passed, recalling the leisurely, supercilious tones, the semi-ironical kindness with which his brother had revealed the situation. Why had he troubled himself to do so? For a space Noel wondered.

And then very suddenly the words, "You've got to worship her always," flashed through his mind. Those words were the key to everything. He realized that fully. And again he was conscious of shame. Yes, Max did care. That was beyond all questioning. He cared enough to do what he--Noel--had wholly failed to do. His love was great enough to efface itself, a form of love--the rarest and the highest--of which he himself was as yet incapable. He could stand between the girl and death without a second's hesitation; but he could not live and sacrifice his happiness to hers.

Again the hot blood mounted to his forehead and slowly sank again. And in those few moments Noel Wyndham stepped into manhood and faced his soul anew. If she loved him, he would marry her and give her all he had; withholding nothing. She should not be a loser because she had loved him better than Max.

He would give her a love as strong and as worthy. He would make her happiness his aim and his goal, his watch-word and his prize. No sacrifice should ever be too great for her. He would offer all he had.

No; never should she come to repent her preference--to regret the love she had refused. She had chosen him--the lesser before the greater; and she should not find him wanting. She should not be disappointed in him. Never, never now should his love fail her!

Impulsive as always, he lifted his sword and kissed the hilt with reverence. "So help me, God!" he swore.

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