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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 25. Memories That Hurt
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 25. Memories That Hurt Post by :tpearl5 Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1356

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 25. Memories That Hurt

PART II CHAPTER XXV. MEMORIES THAT HURT

"Well, Max! You're just off then?" Sir Kersley Whitton looked up with a smile to greet his partner as he entered.

"Just off," said Max.

He came to Sir Kersley, seated at his writing-table, and paused beside him. It was a day in April, showery, shot with fleeting gleams of sunshine that sent long golden shafts across the doctor's room.

"You will bring the boy here then?" said Sir Kersley.

"Yes, straight here. It's very good of you, Kersley." Max's hand lay for a moment on the great man's shoulder.

"Nonsense, my dear fellow! I'm as keen as you are." Sir Kersley leaned back in his chair. "I only hope we may be successful," he said. "Is he likely to be a good patient?"

"Quite the reverse, I should say." Max sounded grim. "But I expect I can manage him."

Sir Kersley smiled again. "Just as you managed me a couple of years ago, eh? Yes, I should say you will be fully competent in that respect. You have a way with you, eh, Max? What was it this Indian doctor said?"

"He believed a cure possible, but only under the most favourable conditions. The boy was in no state then to undergo an operation, and he funked the job." Max's tone was contemptuous.

"Ah, well! It's as well he didn't attempt it in that case," said Sir Kersley. "He will stand a better chance with us. And what about Captain Ratcliffe and Olga? Will they go straight home?"

"No," said, Max. He paused a moment, then said rather shortly, "I had a line from Dr. Jim. He says she won't leave Noel. He and Mrs. Ratcliffe are coming up to meet them, but he expects to go back alone."

"Captain and Mrs. Ratcliffe will stay in town with Olga, then?" asked Sir Kersley.

"I believe so."

Sir Kersley's grey eyes regarded him thoughtfully. "And she is still in the dark with regard to Miss Campion's death?" he asked, after a moment.

Max's eyes came swiftly downwards, meeting his look with something of the effect of a challenge. "Yes, absolutely," he said.

"It's an extraordinary case," observed Sir Kersley.

Max said nothing whatever. He took his pipe from his pocket, and began to fill it with a face of sardonic composure.

"I wonder if she ever asks herself how it came about," said Sir Kersley.

"Why should she?" said Max gruffly.

"My dear fellow, she must have wondered how it happened--why all details were kept from her--and so on."

"Why should she?" said Max again aggressively. "The subject is a painful one. She is willing enough to avoid it. Of course," he paused momentarily, "Noel doesn't know about that affair either. No one knows besides ourselves, but Dr. Jim and Nick."

"In my opinion Noel ought to know," said Sir Kersley, with quiet decision. "It would be a terrible thing for Olga if some day--after they were married--she remembered, and he were in ignorance of it."

Again Max's hand pressed his friend's shoulder, but this time the pressure was one of warning. "Kersley," he said, "I've been into all that. I've weighed every possible contingency that might arise. And I have decided against telling Noel. As you say, it would be a terrible thing if she ever remembered; but if Noel is left in ignorance, the chances are she never will remember. To tell him would be to put a shadow between them which he would never forget and she would in time come to be aware of. It would wreck their happiness sooner or later. No; in Heaven's name, leave them in peace!"

"I think you are wrong," Sir Kersley said. He was looking straight up into Max's face with eyes of shrewd kindliness. "I think it is extremely improbable that she never will remember. And I think, moreover, that it is hardly to be desired that she should not."

"I disagree with you!" said Max harshly.

"Yes, my dear fellow, I know you do. You are no impartial judge. You want--very naturally--to save her from any suffering. And I don't think you will succeed. If you could have persuaded her to marry you, you might have done it. Forewarned is forearmed; you would have known how to safeguard her. But utter ignorance is no safeguard at all. I don't think she would thank you for it--if she knew."

Max's mouth twisted in its most cynical smile. "I wonder," he said.

Sir Kersley said no more. Beyond the bare fact of his brief engagement and its rupture, Max had confided in him not at all. He had left him to infer that she had been caught by a nearer attraction in his absence--an inference which her present engagement to his brother had seemed to confirm. And Sir Kersley had been far too considerate to probe for further enlightenment. But he was not privately by any means satisfied with regard to the matter of Max's long and fruitless journey. He was not accustomed to seeing Max beaten, and the spectacle hurt him.

He urged his opinion no further, for it was evident that Max was firmly determined to withstand it; but when Max had gone he sat and contemplated the matter with a troubled frown. There seemed to be something he had not fathomed behind Max's silence.

As for Max he departed for the docks with that air of grimness that had somewhat grown on him of late. Though bound upon a welcoming errand, he knew that it was not going to be a particularly easy one.

He was somewhat late in arriving, and the great steamer had already come to her moorings. Among the waiting crowd he discerned Dr. Jim and Muriel, but he did not make his way to them. He knew they would meet later, and he was not feeling sociable that afternoon.

So he stood aloof and waited, searching the many faces that lined the deck-rails for the one face that alone he longed to see. He spied her at last, and was conscious of a momentary pang that he fiercely stifled. She was standing there at the rail above him, waving her handkerchief to Dr. Jim. Nick was on one side of her, also madly waving and yelling with futile energy. On the other side stood Noel. And at sight of him Max's grim face softened to tenderness.

"There's grit in the boy," he murmured.

For Noel, with a black shade covering his bandaged eyes, was obviously as merry as any there. He was holding Peggy Musgrave perched on his shoulder, and his thin, brown face was upturned and laughing. There seemed to be some joke going on between them, for Peggy was also chuckling vigorously, and as Max watched she slipped a caressing hand round Noel's chin and tenderly kissed him.

Daisy and Will Musgrave were standing next to them, but they were plainly not thinking of Peggy or her cavalier. They were very close together and hand in hand.

It was nearly an hour later that Max joined the party as they came ashore. Noel's pleasure at meeting him was very obvious. He gripped him by both hands.

"Old chap, you're a brick to come and meet me!" he said. "I was thinking of asking Trevor, but I'd ten times sooner have you."

"Trevor's away," Max said. "I've come to take possession of you altogether. I suppose you've no objection?"

"Objection!" laughed Noel. He pushed his hand through his brother's arm. "You'll have to pilot me," he said. "I'm getting used to things, but I can't find my way in a crowd yet."

And then came the meeting with Olga. It was very brief. For barely the fraction of a second her hand lay in Max's. Her greeting was quite inaudible.

Noel turned to her. "Olga, Max wants me to clear out at once with him. You're going to Marriot's with Nick of course. I shall come round and see you to-night."

"Perhaps Olga will come and see you instead," said Max. "Is Dr. Jim spending the night in town? Bring him to dine! I will speak to him, shall I?"

He passed on and made the arrangement with Dr. Jim, not waiting for her reply.

Then came a general rallying of the party, introductions and good-byes, fervent embraces from Peggy, good wishes and invitations on all sides, and at last the final departure of the two Wyndhams in Sir Kersley Whitton's motor.

Noel removed his hat and leaned back with a sigh. "It's been a ripping voyage," he said. "But I'm deuced glad it's over." He added with a laugh, as Max made no comment. "I shall miss Peggy though. She's been blind man's dog to me all through."

"Let us hope you won't need a dog to lead you about much longer!" said Max.

Whereat Noel's hand came out gropingly, with a certain diffidence. "Oh, man," he said, "I haven't dared to think of that!"

Max grasped the hand. "I'll do my best for you, old chap," he said. "But you'll need a thundering lot of patience."

"I've been cultivating that," said Noel. "The only thing I can't stand is not to know the truth."

"I shan't keep you in the dark," said Max. "It's not my way."

He was as good as his word. A few hours later he made his first examination of the injury, and curtly gave it as his opinion that it was not beyond remedy.

"I don't profess to be infallible," he said. "But there certainly seems to be just a chance that the sight has not been absolutely destroyed. I'm afraid you'll have a good deal to go through if it is to be restored, though. It will be a tough job for all concerned."

"Oh, I'm not afraid of that," said Noel sturdily. "I've the very best of reasons for sticking to it."

"Ah!" said Max, with his twisted smile. "I haven't congratulated you yet."

Noel turned with a quick movement. "I say, Max," he said, with a touch of embarrassment, "you weren't quite straight with me over that, were you?"

"I don't know what you mean," said Max in a voice that was utterly devoid of expression.

Noel's face was red, but he stuck to his point. "You didn't tell me why she broke with you," he said.

"Who did?" demanded Max.

"Hunt-Goring."

Max swallowed a remark which sounded more savage suppressed than if it had been fully audible.

"You had a row with him then?"

"Yes, I did. I couldn't help it. I told him it was a damned lie," said Noel.

Max grunted.

Noel proceeded with a hint of that doggedness that characterized them both. "After that, I saw Olga; it was before we got engaged. And I told her it was a lie too."

Max grunted again, stubbornly refraining from question or comment.

Noel, equally stubborn, continued. "She said it was the truth--said you had admitted it to her. I didn't--quite--believe it even then. Thinking about it since, I am pretty sure you didn't do actually that. Or if you did, it was a lie."

Max maintained an uncompromising silence.

Noel waited a moment, then squarely tackled him. "Max, why did you lie to her?"

"And if I didn't?" said Max very deliberately.

Noel made instant and winning reply. "Oh, you needn't ask me to believe that tomfool tale, old chap! I know you too well for that."

"All right," said Max. "Then you know quite as much as is good for you. If you want to be ready in time to meet your fiancee, you had better let Kersley's man lend you a hand with your dressing. I will send him to you."

He was at the door with the words. Noel heard him open it and go out. He sat where Max had left him with a puzzled frown between his brows.

"I wish I knew the fellow's game," he murmured. "I wish--"

He broke off. What was the good of wishing? Moreover, to be quite honest, perhaps he was more or less satisfied with things as they were. Max had probably got over his disappointment to a certain extent by this time. It was quite obvious that he had no desire or intention to reopen the matter. No, on the whole perhaps it was indiscreet to probe too deeply. Every man had a right to his own secrets. And meantime, Olga was his--was his, and there remained this glorious possibility that his sight might be restored also.

He put up his hands suddenly, covering those useless, tortured eyes. A very curious tremor went through him. His heart began to throb thick and hard. It seemed too good to be true. Since that first awful day he had not fought against Fate, refraining himself even in his worst hours of darkness and suffering, and now it seemed that Fate was going to be kind after all. Like Job, he was to receive all--and more also--that he had lost.

He broke into a quivering laugh. "Good old Job!" he said. "We're not all such lucky beggars as that."

And then again that odd little tremor went through him. It was like a warning, almost a presentiment. His hands fell. He sat straight and still, as one waiting for a sign. No, such things didn't happen. Luck like Job's was apocryphal, abnormal, outside the bounds of human possibility. They might give him back his sight, but--He stopped here as if brought up by a sudden obstacle.

"I wonder if I'm a fool to have that operation," he said. "I wonder if--she--will like me as well if I get back my sight."

The doubt pressed cold at his heart. She had been so divinely kind to him ever since the catastrophe. She had literally given herself up to him, making his darkness light. And vaguely he knew that she had loved the doing of it, had loved to know that he needed her. How would it be, he asked himself, when he needed her thus no longer? Would she love him as well in strength as in weakness? Would she be as near to him when he no longer needed her to lead him by the hand?

He sprang to his feet with a gesture of fierce impatience. He flung the doubt away. Her love was not fashioned of so slender a fabric as this. What right had he to question it thus?

But yet, despite all self-reproach, the doubt remained, repudiate it as he might. It went with him even into her loved presence, refusing to be dislodged.

She came with her father to dine in accordance with Max's invitation. The evening passed with absolute smoothness. Sir Kersley and Dr. Jim were old friends, and had a good deal to say to one another. Max was present at the table, but withdrew early, alleging that he had a serious case to attend. Olga and Noel were left to themselves.

They retired to Sir Kersley's drawing-room and spent the rest of the evening there. Olga was evidently tired, and Noel provided most of the conversation. Noel was never silent for any length of time. He lay on the sofa talking with cheery inconsequence, scarcely pausing for any response, till presently he worked round to the subject of his blindness--a subject which by tacit consent they seldom discussed.

"Max has had a look at me," he said. "He thinks they may be able to switch the light on again. They will have to tighten up a few screws, or something of the kind. He didn't let me into the whole ghastly process, but gave me to understand it wouldn't be exactly a picnic. I don't know how long it's going to take; some time, I fancy. You'll pay me a visit now and then, won't you?"

It was then that Olga came very suddenly out of her silence, moved impulsively to him, and knelt by his side, her hands on his.

"Noel!" she said.

He turned to her swiftly, gathering her hands up to his lips. "What, darling?"

"Noel,--" she paused an instant, then with a rush came the words--"let us be married very soon! Let us be married--before the operation!"

"My darling girl!" said Noel in astonishment.

"Yes," she said rapidly. "I mean it! I wish it! Dad knows that I wish it. So does Nick. Nick is very good, you know. He--he is going to settle some money on me on my twenty-first birthday. So that needn't be a difficulty. We shall have enough to live upon."

"And you think I'm going to live on you?" said Noel, still with her hands pressed hard against his cheek.

"No," she said. "No. You've got something, I expect. That--with mine--would be enough."

"I've got what my good brother-in-law allows me--besides my pay," said Noel. "I daresay--if the worst happened--he would make a settlement too. But I can't count on that. Besides--the worst isn't going to happen. So cheer up, darling! I shall go back to Badgers yet. Poor old boy! It was decent of him to pay me the compliment of being so cut up, wasn't it? I mustn't forget to send him a cable when the deed is done."

He was switching the conversation into more normal channels with airy inconsequence, but Olga gently brought him back to the point.

"Won't you consider my suggestion?" she said.

He smiled then, his quick, boyish smile. "My darling, I have considered it. I'm afraid it isn't practicable. But thank you a million times over all the same!"

"Noel!" There was keen disappointment in her voice. "Why isn't it practicable?"

He let her hands go, and reached out, drawing her to him. "Don't tempt me, sweetheart!" he said softly. "I'm hound enough as it is to dream of letting you join your life to mine under present conditions. But this other is out of the question. I simply won't do it, dear, so don't ask me!"

"But why not?" she pleaded very earnestly. "I have told you I wish it."

He smiled--a smile that was very tender and yet whimsical also. "So like you, darling," he said. "But it can't be done. There are always chances to be taken in a serious operation; but I don't mean to take more than I can help. I'm not going to chance making you a widow almost before you are a wife."

"Oh, but, Noel--" she protested.

"Yes, really, darling. It's my final word on the subject. We will be married just as soon after the operation as can be decently managed. But not before it, sweetheart. Any fellow who let you do that would be a cur of the lowest degree."

He was holding her in his arms with the words. Her head was against his shoulder. A man had entered the conservatory behind them from an adjoining room, lounging in with his feet in carpet slippers that made no sound.

"And suppose--" it was Olga's voice very low and quivering--"suppose the operation doesn't succeed,--shall you--shall you refuse to marry me then?"

"Not much," said Noel cheerily. "If I'm alive and kicking, I shall want you all the more. No!" He caught himself up sharply. "I don't mean that! I couldn't want you more. Ill or well, I should want you just the same. I only meant--" his voice grew subtly softer, he spoke with great tenderness, his lips moving against her forehead--"I only meant that 'the desert were a paradise, if thou wert there, if thou wert there.'"

She raised her head quickly. There were tears in her eyes. "Noel, how strange that you should say that!"

"Say what, dear?"

"That old song," she said rather incoherently. "It--it has memories for me--memories that hurt."

"What memories?" he asked.

But she could not tell him, and he passed the matter by.

The man in the conservatory drew back with his hands deep in his pockets, and went back by the way he had come.

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