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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 19. A Fight Without A Finish
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 19. A Fight Without A Finish Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :484

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 19. A Fight Without A Finish

PART II CHAPTER XIX. A FIGHT WITHOUT A FINISH

It was not the same Olga who went back into the busy little Anglo-Indian community at Sharapura after the breaking of her engagement, though it was only those intimate with her who marked the change. To the rest of the world she was as she had ever been, quiet and gentle, perhaps a little colourless, possibly in the eyes of some even insignificant, --"too reserved to be interesting," according to Colonel Bradlaw who liked a woman to have plenty of vivacity and mirth in her composition.

To those who knew her best--to Nick, to Daisy, and to Noel--she was changed, though it was a change of which she herself was scarcely aware. Her re-awakened spontaneity had gone again. She asked sympathy of none. Even to Nick she made no confidences. She had become wholly woman, and she had learned as it were to stand alone. She preferred her solitude.

Of Noel she seemed a little shy at first, until by frank good-fellowship he overcame this. Noel's courtship was apparently at a standstill. He made no open attempt to further his cause with her, though every day he sought her out with cheery friendliness, never overstepping the mark, never giving her the smallest occasion for embarrassment. And thus every day her confidence in him grew. She came to rely upon him in a fashion that she scarcely realized, depending upon his consideration and unfailing chivalry more than she knew. She had never liked him better than she liked him then, in the first desperate bitterness of her trouble. He asked so little of her, was so readily pleased with her mere friendship, and though at the back of her mind she knew that this was only his pleasant method of marking time she was none the less grateful to him for his patience. He helped her through her dark hours without seeming in the least aware that she needed help. He demanded rather than offered sympathy, and in giving it she found herself oddly soothed. She was glad that Noel wanted her, glad that he regarded her co-operation as quite indispensable to his schemes. He occupied her thoughts at a time when private reflection was torture. The misery was there perpetually at her heart, but he gave her no time to dwell upon it. He carried her along with him with an impetus which she had no desire to resist.

Nick watched his tactics from afar with unwilling admiration, wryly admitting to himself that they were precisely the tactics he would have pursued. He saw that the fulfilment of his prediction was merely a matter of time, and prepared himself to yield to the inevitable with as good a grace as he could muster. He was in fact more in sympathy with Noel than with Olga just then. The boy was undoubtedly developing under this new influence. The spoilt side of his nature was giving place to a new manliness that was infinitely more attractive, and Nick found it impossible not to accept him with approval.

Sir Reginald Bassett's visit was to take place early in February, and great were the preparations in progress for his entertainment. Daisy Musgrave found herself swept into the vortex of Noel's energies, and she on her part did her best to interest her guest therein. It was a futile effort on her part. Hunt-Goring only laughed at her and paid her lazy compliments. Why he stayed on was a problem that she was wholly at a loss to solve. Quite privately she had begun to wish very much that he would go. She was heartily tired of being for ever on her guard, and she never dared to be otherwise with him. Not that she found it really difficult to keep him at a distance. He was too indolent for that. When she withdrew herself, he never troubled to pursue. His attentions were never ardent. But he never failed to take advantage of the smallest lapse on her part. She could never be at her ease with him.

Will Musgrave was inclined to smile at his wife's difficulties. Perhaps he was not wholly sorry that the follies of her youth should thus come home to her. He did not like Hunt-Goring much, but the man never gave offence.

"I suppose he'll go when he's tired of us," said Will philosophically.

"And meantime neither Olga nor Noel will come near the place with him in it," sighed Daisy. "I don't believe he will ever go."

He laughed at that and pinched her cheek. "We shall though, little wife. That honeymoon of ours comes nearer every day."

She smiled an eager, girlish smile. "Dear old Will!" she murmured softly.

It was on that same evening that Noel broke his rule and raced in to give Daisy some important information with regard to his schemes for what he termed "the Bassett week."

He was full of excitement and declared himself unable to remain for a single moment more than his business demanded.

"I'm going to dine with Nick," he told her. "In fact, I'm due there now."

"I never see anything of Nick nowadays," said Daisy.

"No; nor do I. He's at the Palace, morning, noon, and night. Can't see the attraction myself. But no doubt he thinks he's doing something great. By the way, you're coming round to old Badgers' to-morrow, I suppose? We are going to hold a meeting of the committee. Olga will be there of course."

"How is Olga?" asked Daisy.

"Oh, all right. Why don't you go round and see her?" Noel asked the question with some curiosity. He had begun to wonder lately if there could have been a disagreement between them.

Daisy smiled with a touch of wistfulness. She had scarcely seen Olga since the breaking of her engagement. "I seem to have so little time nowadays. The last time I went, she was busy too."

"Oh, she's sure to be busy till Bassett week," laughed Noel. "I'm seeing to that. It's good for her, you know."

"Yes, I know," said Daisy. She added in a lower tone, for Hunt-Goring was smoking on the verandah outside the window, "I am glad you are taking care of her, Noel. She needs that."

Noel coloured a little. "I do what I can. So does Nick. But I wish you would go and see her. She wants a pal of her own sex."

"I am not so sure of that," said Daisy. "Ah, here's Peggy! I thought you wouldn't escape without seeing her."

Peggy's entrance was of the nature of a whirlwind. It completely diverted the thoughts of both. She was scantily clad in a bath-towel which she held tightly gripped with both hands about her small person. Her feet left little wet dabs on the floor as she pattered in.

"Oh, Noel!" she cried. "You horrid, horrid Noel! I've been callin' you for ever so long. And I was in my bath. I thought you'd like to see me in my bath."

"Peggy!" exclaimed her mother, scandalized.

Peggy's _ayah_, also scandalized, hovered in the doorway.

Peggy, herself, from the safe shelter of Noel's arms, smiled securely upon both.

"You mustn't tickle me," she said to her protector, "or I shall come undone. Why hasn't you been to take me for another ride, Noel?"

"Sweetheart--" he began with compunction.

But Peggy interrupted very decidedly. "No, you needn't make excuses. And I'm not goin' to be your sweetheart any more--ever--not till you take me for another ride."

"Oh, don't be cruel!" besought Noel. "I've been so shockingly busy lately. It wasn't that I forgot you, Peggy. I couldn't do that if I tried. So give me a kiss, little sweetheart, and let's be friends! I vow I'll tickle you if you won't."

Peggy, however, was nothing daunted by this threat. She kept her face rigidly turned over his shoulder. "When will you take me for another ride?" she demanded imperiously.

"Peggy," her mother broke in again, "I can't have you behaving like this, dear. It isn't decent. Go back to _ayah at once!"

Peggy peeped mischievously over Noel's shoulder. "If I get down again, I shall come all undone," she said.

"By Jove, what a calamity!" said Noel. "Haven't you got a pin or something to hold the thing together?"

She tightened her arms about his neck. "You carry me back!" she whispered ingratiatingly. "An' I'll give you three booful kisses!"

Noel succumbed at once. "Can't resist that!" he remarked to Daisy. "I'll take her back and slap her for you, shall I?"

"I wish you would," said Daisy.

"He daren't!" declared Peggy.

"Ho! Daren't he?" laughed Noel. "That's the rashest thing you ever said in your life. Come along, you scaramouch, and we'll see about that!"

He bore her away, with her draperies slipping from her, followed by the _ayah whose open horror was surveyed by Peggy with eyes of shining amusement. A little later her shrill squeals announced the fact that Noel was carrying out his threat after a fashion which she found highly enjoyable, and Noel subsequently emerged in a somewhat heated and tumbled condition and bade Daisy a hasty farewell.

"I've chastised the imp, but she's quite unregenerate. Glad I'm not her mother. I've sworn a solemn oath to take her out on the Chimpanzee to-morrow. I haven't time, but that's a detail. I'll work it somehow, if you don't mind having her ready by ten. I'll race round after parade."

"I ought not to let her go," Daisy protested.

He laughed at that. "Yes, yes, you must. I've promised. Good-bye! Ten o'clock then!"

He shook her hand and departed, singing as he went.

Hunt-Goring from the verandah watched him all-unperceived.

"The whelp seems pleased with himself," he observed to Daisy, with a sneering smile. "I presume that Fortune--in the form of Miss Olga Ratcliffe--favours the brave."

"He's very handsome, isn't he?" said Daisy, smiling back not without a touch of malice. "Who could help favouring such an Adonis?"

"Not you, I'm sure," said Hunt-Goring, "or the charming Peggy either. But I'm a little sorry for the red-haired doctor, you know. I feel in a measure responsible for that tragedy."

"The responsibility was mine," said Daisy gravely.

He turned his lazy eyes upon her. "Ah, to be sure! You wanted an excuse to procure that young man his _conge_, I believe. I hope you realize that you are in my debt for just so much as the excuse was worth."

Daisy made a quick movement of exasperation. "Do you never give women credit for being sincere?" she said.

"Only when they are angry," said Hunt-Goring, taking out his cigarette-case. "Now join me, won't you? Sincerity is such a heating quality. I shouldn't cultivate it if I were you."

But Daisy declined somewhat curtly. It was quite evident that her patience was wearing very thin.

Hunt-Goring did not press her. He smiled and subsided with obvious indifference. Perhaps he deemed it wiser not to try her too far, or perhaps he lacked the energy to pursue the matter.

He had taken to spending most of his time on the verandah, smoking his endless cigarettes and dreamily watching the world go by. He seemed almost to have forgotten that he was a guest, and, her exasperation notwithstanding, Daisy could not bring herself to remind him of the fact. For the man was changed. Day after day she realized it more and more clearly. Day after day it seemed to her that he dropped a little deeper into his sea of lethargy. His interest flagged so quickly where once it had been keen. He grew daily older while she watched. And a curious pity for him kept her from actively disliking him, although his power to attract her was wholly gone. She found herself bearing with him simply because he cared so little.

It was quite otherwise with Noel, who was frankly disgusted to find himself confronted with him on the following morning when, true to his promise, he made his appearance with Peggy's mount. Hunt-Goring was just preparing to establish himself on the verandah when Noel came striding along it in search of his small playmate. They so nearly collided in fact that it was impossible for either to overlook the other's presence.

Noel drew back sharply with his quick scowl. They had not met since the evening on which he had so furiously challenged him to battle on Olga's behalf. For Olga's sake, and perhaps a little in deference to Max's warning, he had refrained from following up the challenge, but he was more than ready to do so even yet; and his attitude said as much as he stood aside in glowering silence for the other man to pass.

Hunt-Goring however was plainly in a genial mood. He paused to bestow his smiling scrutiny upon the young officer. "Let me see! Surely we have met before?"

"We have," said Noel bluntly.

"I fear the occasion has slipped my memory," said Hunt-Goring.

A wiser man would have passed on. But Noel had not yet attained to years of discretion. He stood his ground and explained.

"We met at dinner here. Captain and Miss Ratcliffe were here too--and my brother."

"Oh, ah! I remember now. Quite an amusing evening, was it not?" Hunt-Goring laughed gently. "You were rather vexed with me for chaffing her about her engagement. I have always thought a little chaff was legitimate on such occasions."

"When it isn't objectionable," said Noel gruffly.

Hunt-Goring laughed again. "Do you know why the engagement was broken off?"

Noel drew himself up sharply. "That, sir, is neither your affair nor mine."

Hunt-Goring took out his cigarette-case. "Well, it was mine in a way," he observed complacently. "I pulled the strings, you know."

"Ah!" It was an exclamation of anger rather than of surprise. The blood mounted in a great wave to Noel's forehead. He looked suddenly dangerous. "I guessed it was your doing," he said, in a furious undertone.

Hunt-Goring continued to smile. "He wasn't a very suitable _parti for her, my dear fellow. There was a certain episode in his past that wouldn't bear too close an investigation. Very possibly you have not been let into that secret. Your brother was not over-anxious to have it noised abroad."

Noel's hands were clenched. He seemed to be restraining himself from a violent outburst with immense difficulty.

"My brother," he said with emphasis, "is the gentleman of our family. He has never yet done anything that couldn't have been proclaimed from the house-tops."

Hunt-Goring uttered his sneering laugh. "What touching loyalty! My dear fellow, your brother is the biggest blackguard of you all, if you only knew it."

"You lie!" Violently came the words; they were as the sudden bursting of the storm. Something electric seemed suddenly to have entered into Noel. He became as it were galvanized by fury.

But still Hunt-Goring laughed. "Oh, not on this occasion, I assure you. I have too little at stake. I wonder why you imagined the engagement was broken off. I suppose your brother gave you a reason of sorts."

Noel's eyes shone red. "He gave me to understand that you had had a hand in it. I guessed it in fact. I knew what an infernal blackguard you were."

"Order! Order!" smiled Hunt-Goring. "After all, my share in the matter was a very small one. Most men have a past, you know. When you have lived a little longer, you will recognize that. So he didn't tell you why he had been thrown over? Left you to make your own inferences, I suppose? Or perhaps she made the flattering suggestion that she had bestowed her affections upon--someone more captivating? I fancy she is wisely determined to secure as good a bargain as possible--for which one can scarcely blame her. And a man with so lively a past as your brother's would scarcely be a safe partner for one who values peace and prosperity."

"How dare you make these vile insinuations in my hearing?" burst forth Noel. "Do you think I'm made of sawdust? Tell me what you mean, or else retract every single word you've said!"

Hunt-Goring held up a cigarette between his fingers and looked at it. The fury of Noel's attitude scarcely seemed to reach his notice. He leaned against the balustrade of the verandah, still faintly smiling.

"I would tell you the whole story with pleasure," he said, "only I am not quite sure that it would be good for you to know."

"Oh, damn all that!" broke in Noel, goaded to exasperation by his obvious indifference. "If you want to save your skin, you'd better speak out at once!"

"To save my skin!" Hunt-Goring's eyes left their contemplation of the cigarette and travelled to his face. They held a sneer that was well-nigh intolerable, and yet which somehow restrained Noel for the moment. "What a very headlong young man you are!" pursued Hunt-Goring, in his soft voice. "I've done nothing to you. I haven't the smallest desire to quarrel with you. Nor have I given you any occasion for offence. It was Mrs. Musgrave--not I--who imparted the regrettable tale of your brother's shortcomings to his _fiancee_. In some fashion she conceived it to be her duty to do so."

"You meant her to do it!" flashed back Noel.

"Ah! that is another story," smiled Hunt-Goring. "We are not discussing motives or intentions. I think. But she will tell you--if you care to ask her--that I advised her strongly against the course she elected to pursue."

"You would!" said Noel bitterly. "Well, get on! Let's hear this precious story. I've no doubt it's a damned lie from beginning to end, but if it's going the round I'd better know it."

"It may be a lie," said Hunt-Goring diplomatically. "But it was not concocted by me. I should conclude, however, from subsequent events that some portion of it bears at least some sort of resemblance to the truth." He stopped to light his cigarette while Noel looked on fuming. "The story is a very ordinary one, but might well prove somewhat damning to a doctor's career. It concerned a young lady with whom your brother was--somewhat intimate."

"Did you know her?" thrust in Noel.

Hunt-Goring looked at the end of his cigarette with a thoughtful smile. "Yes, I knew her rather well. I was not, however, prepared to lend my name to cloak a scandal--even to oblige your brother who had transferred his attentions to Miss Olga, so he had to take his own measures." He looked up with a glitter of malice in his eyes. "The girl died," he said, "rather suddenly. That's all the story."

It was received in a dead silence that lasted for the breathless passage of a dozen seconds. Then: "You--skunk!" said Noel.

He did not raise his voice to say it, but there was that in his tone that was more emphatic than violence. It warned Hunt-Goring of danger as surely as the growl of a tiger. His lazy complacence suddenly gave place to alertness. He straightened himself up. But even then he had not the sense to refrain from his abominable laugh.

"I've noticed," he said, "that present-day puppies are greater at snarling than fighting. I told you this story because you asked for it. Now I'll tell you one you didn't ask for. Max Wyndham transferred his attentions to Olga Ratcliffe, not because he cared for her, but because he wanted to put a spoke in my wheel. Little Olga and I were very thick at one time. You didn't know that, I daresay?"

"I don't believe it!" said Noel, breathing heavily.

Hunt-Goring inhaled a deep breath of smoke and blew it forth again in gentle puffs. "Ah! She never told you that? She was always a secretive young woman. Yes, we had some very jolly times together on the sly, till one day the doctor-fellow caught us kissing under the apple-trees. Then of course she was afraid he'd split, so it was all up." He smiled insolently into Noel's blazing eyes. "I flatter myself that she missed those stolen kisses," he said. "I must go round one of these days--when the dragon is out of ear-shot--and make up for it."

That loosed the devil in Noel at last. He took a swift step forward. His right hand gripped his riding-whip.

"If you ever go near her again," he said, "I'll break every bone in your body! You liar--you damned blackguard--you cur!"

Full into Hunt-Goring's face he hurled his furious words. He was more angry in that moment than he had ever been in his life. The force of his anger carried him along as a twig borne on a racing current. Till that instant he had forgotten that he carried his riding-whip. The sudden remembrance of it flashed like a streak of lightning through his brain.

Before he knew what he was doing, almost as if a will swifter than his own were at work, he had sprung upon Hunt-Goring and struck him a swinging blow across the shoulders.

Only that one blow, however! For Hunt-Goring was not an easy man to thrash. Ten years before, he had been the strongest man in his regiment, and he was powerful still. Before Noel could strike again, he was locked in an embrace that threatened to crush him to a pulp.

In awful silence they strained and fought together, and in a second or two it came to Noel through the silence that he had met his match. The Irish blood in him leaped exultant to the fray. He laughed a breathless laugh, and braced his muscles to a fierce resistance. He had been spoiling for a fight with this man for a long time.

But it was impossible to do anything scientific in that constrictor-like hold, and as they swayed and strove he began to realize that unless he could break it, it would very speedily break him. Hunt-Goring's face, purple and devilish, with lips drawn back and teeth clenched upon his cigarette, glared into his own. There was something unspeakably horrible about the eyes. They turned upwards, showing the whites all shot with blood.

"The man's a maniac!" was the thought that ran through Noel's brain.

His heart had begun to pump with painful hammering strokes. Not much of a fight this! Rather a grim struggle for life against a power he could not break. He braced himself again to burst that deadly grip. In his ears there arose a great surging. He felt his own eyes begin to start. By Heaven! Was he going to be squeezed to death ignominiously on the strength of that single blow? He gathered himself together for one mighty effort--the utmost of which he was capable--to force those iron arms asunder.

For about six seconds they stood the strain, holding him like a vice; then very suddenly they parted--so suddenly that Noel almost staggered as he drew his first great gasp of relief. Hunt-Goring reeled--almost fell--back against the wall of the bungalow. The sweat was streaming down his forehead. His face was livid. His eyes, sinister and awful, were turned up like the eyes of a dead man. He was chewing at his cigarette with a ceaseless working of the jaws indescribably horrible to watch.

Noel realized on the instant that the struggle was over, with small satisfaction to either side. He stood breathing deeply, all the mad blood in him racing at fever speed through his veins, burning to follow up the attack but conscious that he could not do so. For the man who leaned there facing him was old--a bitter fact which neither had realized until that moment--too old to fight, too old to thrash.

Noel swung round and turned his back upon him, utterly disgusted with the situation. He picked up his riding-whip with a savage gesture and stared at it with fierce regret. It was a serviceable weapon. He could have done good work with it--on a younger man.

Hunt-Goring made a sudden movement, and he wheeled back. The livid look had gone from the man's face. He stood upright, and spat the cigarette from his lips. His eyes had drooped again, showing only a malicious glint between the lids. Yet there was something about him even then that made Noel aware that he was very near the end of his strength.

He was on the verge of speaking when there came the sudden rush of Peggy's eager feet, and she darted out upon the verandah, and raced to Noel with a squeal of delight.

Noel caught her in his arms. He had never been more pleased to see her. He did not look at Hunt-Goring again, and the words on Hunt-Goring's lips remained unspoken.

"Let's go! Let's go!" cried Peggy.

And Noel turned as if the atmosphere had suddenly become poisonous, and bore her swiftly away.

A few seconds later, Daisy, running out to see the start, came upon Hunt-Goring upright and motionless upon the verandah, and was somewhat surprised by the rigidity of his attitude. He relaxed almost at once, however, and sat down in his usual corner.

"I had no idea Noel was here," she said. "Has he been waiting long?"

"Not long," said Hunt-Goring. "I have been entertaining him."

"Isn't he a nice boy?" said Daisy impetuously. "Look at him in the saddle--so splendidly young and free!"

Hunt-Goring was silent a moment. Then, as he took out his cigarette-case, he remarked: "He is so altogether charming, Mrs. Musgrave, that I can't help thinking that he must be one of those fortunate people 'whom the gods love.'"

"But what a horrid thing to say!" protested Daisy. "I'm sure Noel won't die young. He is so full of vitality. He couldn't!"

Hunt-Goring smiled upon his cigarettes. "I wonder," he said slowly, and chose one with the words. "I--wonder!"

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