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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 21. The Gathering Storm
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 21. The Gathering Storm Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1541

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 21. The Gathering Storm

PART II CHAPTER XXI. THE GATHERING STORM

Looking back in after days, the time that elapsed between the coming of Sir Reginald Bassett and the night of the Fancy-Dress Ball at the mess-house was to Olga as a whirling nightmare. She took part in all the gaieties that she and Noel had so busily planned, but she went through them as one in the grip of some ghastly dream, beholding through all the festivities the shadow of inexorable Fate drawing near. For she was caught in the net at last, hopelessly, irrevocably enmeshed. From the very outset she had realized that. There could no longer be any way of escape for her, for she could not accept deliverance at the price that must be paid for it. She did not so much as seek to escape, knowing her utter helplessness. Rebellion was a thing of the past. Her spirit was broken. Had she been still engaged to Max, the struggle, though hopeless, would have been more fierce. But since that was over, there was little left to fight for on her own account. Hate and loathe the man as she might, she was forced to own his mastery. To pass from the desert to an inferno was not so racking a contrast as if he had dragged her direct from her paradise.

Later, when the first paralysis of despair had passed, when her captor came to take full possession, she would rebel again wildly, madly. There would be a frightful struggle between them, the last fierce effort of her instinct to be free from a bondage that revolted her. Vaguely, from afar, she viewed that inevitable battle, and in her mind the conviction grew that she would not survive it. The thing was too monstrous. It would kill her.

But for the present her power of resistance was dead. Max must be protected, and this was the only way. She did not dare to think of him in those days, save as it were in the abstract. He filled a certain chamber in her heart which she never entered. He had gone out of her life more completely than if he had died, for she cherished no tender memory of him. She turned away from the bare thought of him, and in the naked horrors of the night, when she lay cold and staring while the hours crawled by, she deliberately banished him from her mind. She was going to do this thing for his sake--this thing that she firmly believed would kill her--but she barred him away from her agony. Not even in thought could she endure his presence at the sacrifice.

So, without struggle, those awful days passed, and she mingled with the gay crowd, instinctively hiding the plague-spot in her soul. Each day she encountered Hunt-Goring at one function or another, meeting the gleam in his dark eyes with no outward tremor but with a heart gone cold. He made no attempt to be alone with her; he was content to bide his time, knowing that the game was his. And each night the memory of his hateful kisses wound like a thread of evil through her brain, banishing all rest.

It was on the afternoon preceding the Ball that Nick called her out to the verandah where he and Sir Reginald were sitting. She liked Sir Reginald, he was genial and kindly and exceedingly easy to entertain.

He drew forward a chair beside him as she approached. "Come and join us, Miss Ratcliffe! Nick and I have been having a very lengthy confab. I am afraid you will accuse me of monopolizing him."

Olga came to the chair and sat beside him. "I hope you have been telling him to stop his visits to the native quarter at night," she said. "They are very bad for him. Look how thin he is getting!"

Nick laughed, but Sir Reginald shook his head. "If I may be allowed to say so, I don't think you are either of you looking very robust," he said. "India plays tricks with us, doesn't she? It doesn't do to let her get too strong a hold. I think Nick will be in a position to take you Home before the end of next month, Miss Ratcliffe. His work here is practically done, and a very brilliant service he has rendered the Government. It has been a very delicate task, and he has accomplished it with marked ability."

"Oh, is it finished?" said Olga.

"Not finished--no!" said Nick. "And never will be with Kobad Shikan in power. But I rather fancy the days of that old gentleman's supremacy are drawing to an end. I've been teaching friend Akbar a thing or two lately. He is beginning to see which way the cat jumps, and to realize that the only way to hold his own is to hold by his masters. I've been the antidote to a big dose of sedition administered by the hoary Kobad, and I fancy I've brought him round. Kobad's influence is undermined in all directions, and I fancy the old sinner is beginning to know it."

"I knew he was a horrid old man!" said Olga.

Nick laughed again. "He entertains a very lively hatred for all of us that nothing will ever eradicate. But he belongs to the old _regime_, so what could one expect? I have even heard it whispered that he served with the rebel sepoys in the Mutiny. However, his day is done. Akbar is no longer under his influence. He will strike out a line for himself now. I've won him round to the British raj, and if he isn't assassinated by Kobad's people, he'll do. It's a pity they can't have martial law for a bit," he added to Sir Reginald. "They would settle in half the time. Hang a few, shoot a few, and--"

"Nick!" said Olga, in astonishment.

He stretched out his one hand and laid it on her knee. "And flog a few," he finished, smiling at her. "There would be some chance for the State then. Yes, I'm a blood-thirsty creature. Didn't you know? One can't wear gloves for this game."

Olga held his hand in silence. She had learned more of Nick in the past five months than she had ever known before. Undoubtedly he had become more of the man to her and less of the hero. She did not love him any the less for it, but her attitude towards him was different.

She knew he had divined the change, and suspected him of being amused thereby--a suspicion which he strengthened by saying with a laugh, "You didn't know I could be such a brute, did you?"

She smiled back a little wistfully. "I begin to think you could be almost anything, Nick," she said.

He shot her a swift glance, and it seemed to her for a moment that he was looking for a double meaning to her words. But apparently he found none, for he smiled again with the comfortable remark, "Ah, well, it's a useful faculty if exercised with discretion. What are you going to wear to-night? Let's hear all about it!"

That was the new Nick all over, displaying the male denseness with which she had never been wont to credit him. She gave him details of her costume without much ardour, he listening with careless comments.

"You don't sound very keen," he said suddenly. "I believe you're getting _blase_."

"These things get a little monotonous, don't they?" said Sir Reginald.

His smile was sympathetic. She felt inexplicably that he understood her better than did Nick. He had fathomed the deadly weariness that Nick had overlooked.

"Go on!" commanded Nick. "Who are you going to dance with?"

She hesitated a little, and he turned his hand and pinched her fingers somewhat mercilessly. "Noel of course--he's too handsome to refuse, isn't he? And the rest of the boys will expect their share, doubtless. But remember--the supper-dances are mine."

She started a little. "Oh, Nick dear, I'm afraid I've promised those already."

"To whom?" said Nick swiftly.

"Major Hunt-Goring." Her voice was low; she did not look at him as she uttered the name.

Nick's eyebrows shot upwards with lightning rapidity; then drew into a frown. He was silent for a moment before he said very decidedly, "I'm not going to let you dance with Hunt-Goring, so you may as well pass his dances on to me. If he wants to know the reason, he can ask me--and I shall be delighted to tell him."

He spoke in a fighting tone; there was fight in the grip of his hand. Olga noted it, and foresaw trouble.

"I'm afraid it's too late now, Nick," she said rather wearily. "I must keep my engagements."

Nick turned and sent one of his keen glances over her. "You won't keep this one," he told her. "I am simply not going to allow it. Those supper-dances are mine, so make up your mind to that!"

He spoke with a finality that made protest seem futile. It seemed to Olga that the yellow face had never looked so grim. She made no further effort to withstand him, aware that to do so would entail a battle of wills which could only end in her defeat. Perhaps deep in the heart of her she was even thankful for this brief reprieve.

She said nothing therefore, and Sir Reginald considerately turned the subject by asking Nick what disguise he intended to assume.

"I?" said Nick. "I haven't absolutely decided, sir. I've got a fool's dress somewhere that might serve."

He turned, releasing Olga's hand, to take a screw of paper from a salver with which Kasur at that moment approached him.

He glanced at Sir Reginald as he did so, muttered a word of excuse, and deftly opened it. The next instant he crumpled it again in his hand, and spoke over his shoulder to the waiting native.

"Say I will see the moonstone before it is sent away!"

The man departed, and Nick rose. "Afraid I shall have to go to the Palace, sir. Olga, you must take care of Sir Reginald in my absence."

"What! Now, Nick?" Olga looked up in swift surprise.

"Yes, now, my child. Good-bye!" He stooped and lightly kissed her. "I daresay I shan't be late back. If I am, you must go to the Ball without me, and get Sir Reginald to take care of you. I shall turn up some time, you may be sure."

"Important, is it?" asked Sir Reginald.

Nick nodded. "I ought to go, sir. Don't wait for me. I shall follow on if I'm late. In any case," he turned to Olga, "I shall be in time for those supper-dances."

His look flashed over her with a species of quizzical tenderness. "And you are not to give any dances to Hunt-Goring, mind, whatever the bounder says."

He was gone. Free, careless, upright, he strode humming along the verandah and swung round the corner out of sight.

A brief silence descended upon the two who were left. Olga glanced once or twice at Sir Reginald, whose brows were drawn in deep thought.

At length, with slight hesitation she spoke, voicing the anxiety that had been growing within her for many days. "Sir Reginald, do you think he is in any danger when he goes to the city?"

The old soldier came out of his reverie, and met her eyes. He smiled at her, albeit his own were grave. "He is extremely shrewd and capable," he said. "I do not think there is much likelihood of his being taken unawares."

"But it is dangerous?" Olga insisted.

"There is a certain amount of risk certainly." Gravely he admitted the fact. "But I think you need not be over-anxious," he added, with a kindly smile. "Nick is one of those clever people who always manage to win through somehow. They always used to say of him on the Frontier that he bore a charmed life. He has a positive genius for wriggling out of tight corners."

He wished to reassure her, she saw; but somehow she did not feel reassured. The conviction was growing upon her that Nick was exposing himself to a danger that would have appalled her had she realized it to its fullest extent.

She said no more to Sir Reginald, but her heart sank. The clouds were gathering thicker and ever thicker on her horizon. She did not dare to look forward any more.

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