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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 5. The Everlasting Chain
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 5. The Everlasting Chain Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2759

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 5. The Everlasting Chain

PART II CHAPTER V. THE EVERLASTING CHAIN

It was a very thoughtful face that met Nick at the breakfast table on the following morning. But Nick's greeting was as airy as usual. He made no comments and asked no questions.

The day was Sunday, a perfect day of Indian winter, cloudless and serene. The tamarisks in the compound waved their pink spikes to the sun, and in the palm-trees behind them bright-eyed squirrels dodged and flirted. A line of cypresses bounded the garden, and the sky against which they stood was an ardent blue.

"What is the programme for to-day?" said Nick, when the meal was nearly over.

Olga leaned her chin on her hand, and looked across at him. "Shall you go to church, Nick?"

The cantonments boasted a small church and a visiting chaplain who held one service in it every Sunday.

Nick considered the matter in all its bearings while he stirred his coffee.

"No," he said finally; "I think I shall stay at home with you this morning."

"How do you know I am not going?" said Olga.

Nick grinned. "I'm awfully good at guessing, Olga _mia_."

She smiled rather wanly. "Well, I'm not going, as a matter of fact. I had a stupid sort of night."

Nick nodded. "I shan't take you out to dinner again for a long time."

"It wasn't that," she said. "At least, I don't think so. It was that song. Why did Noel sing it?"

"For reasons best known to himself," said Nick, taking out his cigarette-case.

She rose and went round to his side to strike a match for him, but reaching him she suddenly knelt and clasped her arms about his neck.

"Nick," she whispered, "I'm frightened."

His arm went round her instantly. "What is it, my chicken?"

She held him closely for a while in silence; then, her face hidden, she told him of the trouble at her heart.

"That song has been haunting me all night long. I feel as if--as if--someone--were calling me, and I can't quite hear or understand. Nick, where--where is Violet?"

It had come at last. Once before she had confronted him with that question, and he had turned it aside. But to-day, he knew that he must face and answer it.

He laid his cheek against her hair. "Olga darling, I think you know, but I'll tell you all the same. She has--gone on."

Very gently he spoke the words, and after them there fell a silence broken only by the scolding of a couple of parroquets in a mimosa-tree near the verandah.

Nick did not stir. His lips twitched a little above the fair head, and his yellow face showed many lines; but there was no tension in his attitude. His pose was alert rather than anxious.

Olga lifted her face at last. She was very white, but fully as composed as he.

"That," she said slowly, "was the thing I couldn't remember."

He nodded. "It was."

Her hands clasped the front of his coat with nervous force. She looked him straight in the face.

As of old, the flickering eyes evaded her. They met and passed her over a dozen times, but imparted nothing.

"Nick," she said, "will you please tell me how it happened? I am strong enough to bear it now, and indeed--indeed, I must know."

"I have been waiting to tell you," Nick said. "Put on a hat, and we will go in the garden."

She rose at once. Somehow his brief words reassured her. She felt no agitation, was scarcely aware of shock. In his presence even the shadow of Death became devoid of all superstitious fears. In some fashion he made fear seem absurd.

Nick waited for her on the verandah with his face turned up to the sky. He scarcely looked like a man bracing himself for a stiff ordeal, but it was not his way to stoop under his burdens. He had learned to tread jauntily while he carried a heart like lead.

When Olga joined him, he put his hand through her arm and led her forth. The path wound along between the tangle of shrubs and lower growth till it reached the cypresses, and here was a shady stretch where they could pace to and fro in complete privacy.

Arrived here, Nick spoke. "It wasn't altogether news to you, was it?"

She passed her hand across her eyes in the old, puzzled way. "I didn't remember," she said, "and yet I wasn't altogether surprised. I think somehow at the back of my mind--I suspected."

"You remember now," said Nick.

She looked at him with troubled eyes. "No, I don't, dear. That's just it. I--I can't remember. It--frightens me." She clasped his hand with fingers that trembled.

"No need to be frightened," said Nick. "You were ill, you know; first the heat and then the shock. After brainfever, people very often do forget."

"Ah, yes," she said, with a piteous kind of eagerness. "But it is coming back now. I only want you to help a little." She stood suddenly still. "Nick, you are not afraid of Death, I know. Wasn't it you who called it the opening of a Door?"

"It is--just that," said Nick.

"But the body," she said, "the body dies."

"The body," he said, "is like a suit of clothes that you lay aside till the time comes for it to be renovated and made wearable again."

"Ah! She couldn't die, could she, Nick?" Olga's eyes implored him. "Not she herself!" she urged. "She was so full of life. I can't realize it. I can't--I can't! Tell me how it happened! Surely I never saw her dead! Whatever came after, I never could have forgotten that!"

"Tell me how much you do remember, kiddie," Nick said gently. "And I will fill in the gaps."

Her forehead contracted in a painful frown. "It's so difficult," she said, "so disjointed--like a dreadful dream. I know she was horribly afraid of Max. And then there was Major Hunt-Goring. I can't believe she ever liked him. It was only because he--flattered her, and gave her those dreadful cigarettes."

"Probably," said Nick.

"That morning when he invited us to go on his yacht is the last thing I can remember clearly," she said. "I didn't want to go, but--she--insisted. After that, my mind is just a jumble of impressions that don't fit into each other. I seem to remember being on the yacht, and Major Hunt-Goring and Violet laughing together. And then he came and told me an awful thing about her mother. He wanted me to say I would marry him, and I wouldn't because I hated him so. And after that he was so furious, he went and told her too."

Olga stopped with horror in her eyes. The effort to remember was plainly torturing her, yet Nick made no effort to help her.

"And after that?" he said.

"Oh, after that, there seems to come a blank. I remember her face, and how I held her in my arms and tried to comfort her. And then--oh, it's just like a dreadful dream!--I was running in the sun, running, running, running, never seeming to get anywhere. The next thing I really remember is being at the Priory and having lunch in that awful storm, and Max coming--do you remember?--do you remember? And how I kept him away from her? Poor child, he terrified her so." Olga was shuddering now from head to foot. Her eyes were wide and staring, as though fixed upon some fearful vision.

Nick did not attempt to interrupt her. He waited, alert and silent, for the vision to come to an end.

The end was not far off. She went on speaking rapidly, as if more to herself than to him. She seemed indeed to have forgotten him for the moment.

"What a frightful storm it was! That flash of lightning--how it shone through the east window--and the floor was all red as if--as if--" She broke off; her hand clenched unconsciously upon Nick's. "Did you see her?" she whispered. "Or was it only a nightmare? She--was trying--to--to--kill Max--in the dark!"

"She was not herself," said Nick. His voice was low and soothing; he spoke as if he feared to awake her.

"No--no! She was mad--like her mother. Oh, Nick, how beautiful she was!"

Suddenly the tension passed. Olga covered her face and began to cry.

His arm tightened about her; he drew her on up the shady walk. "And that is all you remember, kiddie?" he said.

She slipped her arm round his neck as they walked. "No, I remember two things more." She forced back her tears to tell him. "I remember Max's arm all soaked with blood. It stained my dress too. And I remember his saying that--that it was a hopeless case, and that she--Violet--was as good as dead. After that--after that----"

Nick waited. "After that?" he said.

She turned to him, her face anguished, piteous, appealing. "I can't get any further than that, Nick. It's just a dreadful darkness that makes me afraid. I think I begged him not to go to her. But I know he went, because--when he came down again"--her voice faltered; bewilderment showed through her distress--"when he came down again--" she repeated the words like a child conning a lesson, then stopped, staring widely. "Ah, I don't remember," she cried hopelessly. "I don't remember--except that I think--when he came down again--it was all over. And he seemed to be angry with me. Why was he angry with me, Nick? Why? Why?"

She began to tremble violently; but Nick's arm, strong and steadfast, drew her on.

"He wasn't angry," said Nick. "Up to that point you are all right, but there your imagination runs away with you. It's not surprising. He looks grim enough when he's on the job. But that's his way. We know too much of him, you and I, to take him over seriously."

"Then he really wasn't angry?" Olga said, relief struggling with doubt in her voice.

Nick began to smile. "He really wasn't," he said.

She gave a sharp sigh. "I've been so afraid sometimes. But why--why did he look so strange?"

"Doctors don't like being beaten," said Nick.

"But then, he knew it was hopeless--he said so. Was he angry because of his arm? Was he angry with her, do you think? Oh, Nick, my brain--my brain! It does whirl so! It won't let me think quietly."

"There is no need to make it think any more," said Nick, with quick decision. "Give it a rest! You've got hold of the main points, and that's enough for anyone. You mustn't fret either, dear. Remember, we are all going the same way. God knows why we take these things so hard. I suppose it's our silly little minds that won't let us look ahead."

"If we only could look ahead!" murmured Olga. "If we could only know!"

Nick's eyes sent a single flashing glance over the cypresses. His arm clasped her closely and very tenderly. "That's just where the trick of believing comes in," he said. "I don't see how those who honestly believe in the love of God can help believing that all is well with those who have gone on. To my mind it follows as the inevitable sequence. Those who doubt it are putting a limit to the Illimitable and placing a lower estimate on the love of God than they place upon their own. But we are all such wretched little pigmies--even the biggest of us. We are apt to forget that, don't you think? Horribly apt to try and measure the Infinite with a foot-rule. And see what comes of it! Only a deeper darkness and a narrowing of our own miserable limitations. We never get any further that way, Olga _mia_. Speculating and dogmatizing don't help us. We are up against the Unknown like a wall. But the love of God shines on both sides of it; and till the Door opens to us also, that's as much as we shall know."

He paused. Olga was listening with rapt attention. Her tears were gone, but the clasp of her hand was feverishly tense. Her breath came quickly.

"Go on, Nick!" she whispered. "Tell me more of the things you believe!"

He smiled whimsically. "My dear, I'm afraid I'm not over-orthodox. You see, I've knocked about a bit and seen something of other men's beliefs. The love of God is the backbone of my religion, and all that doesn't go with that, I discarded long ago. If Christianity doesn't mean that, it doesn't mean anything. I've no use for the people who think that none but their own select little circle will go to heaven. Such Gargantuan smugness takes one's breath away. It is almost too colossal to be funny. One wonders where on earth they get it from. I suppose it's a survival of the Dark Ages, but even then surely people had brains of some description."

"But death, Nick!" she said. "Death is such a baffling kind of thing."

"Yes, I know. You can't grasp it or fathom it. You can only project your love into it and be quite sure that it finds a hold on the other side. Why, my dear girl, that's what love is for. It's the connecting link that God Himself is bound to recognize because it is of His own forging. Don't you see--don't you know it is Divine? That is why our love can hold so strongly--even through Death. Just because it is part of His plan--a link in the everlasting Chain that draws the whole world up to Paradise at last. It's so divinely simple. One wonders how anyone can miss the meaning of it."

Olga's rapt face relaxed. She smiled at him--a very loving, comprehending smile. "Yes, I see it when you put it like that, Nick, of course. It is only just at first Death seems so staggering--such a plunge into the dark."

"But there is nothing in the dark to frighten us," Nick said. "If some of us died and some didn't, it would be terrible, I grant. But we are all going sooner or later. No one is left behind for long. To my mind there's a vast deal of comfort in that. It doesn't leave much time for grousing when we simply can't help moving on."

She squeezed his hand. "I wonder where I'd be without you, Nick."

Nick's grin flashed magically across his face. "I'm only a man, kiddie," he observed, "and I seem to have been gassing somewhat immoderately. However, them's my sentiments, and you can take 'em or leave 'em according to fancy."

Thereafter for a space they talked of Violet, touching no tragic note, recalling her as an absent friend. Olga dwelt fondly upon the thought of her, scarcely realizing her loss. The new life she had entered had done much to soften the blow when it should fall. Here in a strange land she did not feel her friend's death as she would inevitably have felt it at Weir. Circumstances combined with Nick's sheltering presence to lift the weight which otherwise must have pressed heavily upon her. Moreover, the longer she contemplated the matter, the more completely did she realize that it had not come to her with the force of a sudden calamity. Deep within her she had carried a nameless dread that had hung upon her like an iron fetter. She had longed--yet trembled--to know the truth. Now that burden seemed lifted from her, and she was conscious of relief. Before, she had feared she knew not what; but now she feared no longer. She was weary beyond measure, too weary for grief or wonder, though she did ask Nick, faintly smiling, why they had kept the truth from her for so long.

"I should have found it easier if I had known," she said.

But Nick shook his head with the wisdom of an old man. "You weren't strong enough to know," he said.

She did not contest the point, reflecting that Nick, with all his shrewdness, was but a man, as he himself admitted.

She asked him presently, somewhat haltingly, if he would give her the details of her friend's death. "Max was there, I know. But he never tells one anything. It was one of the reasons why I never got on with him."

A hint of the old resentment was in her tone, and Nick smiled at it. "Poor old Max! You always were down on him, weren't you? But there is really nothing to tell, dear. She just went to sleep, and her heart stopped. They said it was not altogether surprising, considering her state of health."

"Who said?" questioned Olga.

"Sir Kersley Whitton and Max. Max sent for him, you know."

"Oh, did he? Yes, I remember now. I saw him just for a moment." Again her brow contracted. "Oh, I wish I could remember everything clearly, Nick!" she said.

"Never mind, my chicken! Don't try too hard!" Cheery and reassuring came Nick's response. "Don't you think you have thought enough for one day? Shall we tell Kasur to order the horses, and go for a canter?"

She turned beside him. "Yes, I shall like that. But--why did you say I was always hard on Max?"

"The result of observations made," he answered lightly.

She smiled with a hint of wistfulness, and said no more. The child Olga would have argued the point. The woman Olga held her peace.

Undoubtedly Nick had stepped off his pedestal that day. She loved him none the less for it, but she wondered a little.

And Nick, philosopher and wily tactician, grinned at his fallen laurels and let them lie. He had that day accomplished the most delicate task to which he had ever set his hand. Behind the mask of masculine clumsiness he had subtly worked his levers and achieved his end. And he was well satisfied with the result.

Let her pity his limitations after a woman's immemorial fashion! How should she recognize the wisdom of the serpent which they veiled?

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