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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 7. The Wilderness Of Nasty Possibilities
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 7. The Wilderness Of Nasty Possibilities Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2136

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 7. The Wilderness Of Nasty Possibilities


When Nick heard of the mistake that had been made, he raised his eyebrows till he could raise them no further and then laughed, laughed immoderately till Olga was secretly a little exasperated.

They did not have much time for discussing the matter, and for some reason Nick did not seem anxious to do so. If he had his own private opinion, he did not impart it to Olga, and, since he seemed inclined to treat the whole affair with levity, she did not press him for it. For she herself was regarding matters very seriously.

Noel's candid adoration was beginning to assume somewhat alarming proportions, and she had a feeling that it was undermining her resolution. She was not exactly afraid, but she did not feel secure. He appealed, in some fashion wholly inexplicable, to her inner soul. His very daring attracted her. By sheer audacity he weakened her powers of resistance. And yet she knew that he would not press her too hard. With all his impetuosity, he was so quick to understand her wishes, so swift to respond to the curb. No, he would not capture her against her will. But therein she found no comfort. For he was drawing her by a subtler method than that. His boyish homage, his winning ardour, these were weapons that were infinitely harder to resist. There was scarcely a woman in Noel Wyndham's acquaintance who had not at one time or another felt the force of his fascination. He exerted it instinctively, often almost unconsciously, and now that he had deliberately set himself to attract he wielded his power with marvellous effect. His warmth, his gaiety, his persistence, all combined to make of him a very gallant knight; and Olga was beginning to find that it hurt her to resist the magnetism by which he held her. And yet--and yet--deep in the soul of her she knew how little she had to give. That haunting memory which yet invariably eluded her made her vaguely conscious that far down in the most secret corner of her heart was a locked door which would never open to him. She herself scarcely knew what lay behind it, but none the less was it sacred. Not even to Nick--trusted counsellor and confidant--would that door ever open; perhaps to none....

The Christmas service roused her somewhat from the contemplation of her perplexities, and after it there were friends to greet--Colonel Bradlaw and his merry little wife, Will Musgrave, Daisy, and the radiant Peggy.

They made a cheery crowd as they assembled in the hot sunshine before Nick's bungalow a little later and discussed their final arrangements for the picnic at Khantali.

The Bradlaws had a waggonette, and Daisy and Peggy were to drive with them. Noel had a dog-cart in which he boldly announced that Olga must accompany him.

Olga wanted to ride, but Nick declared that this would overtire her, adding with a grin that he would occupy the back seat in the dog-cart if Noel had no objection.

Noel grinned also, and expressed his delight; but at the last moment a couple of his brother-subalterns came up and took forcible possession of Nick, protesting that such a celebrity could not be permitted to take a back seat and insisting that he should travel in the place of honour in their dog-cart. Nick, finding himself outnumbered, submitted with no visible discomfiture, and the procession, being completed by about a dozen equestrians, finally started with much laughter and _badinage upon the long, rough journey through the jungle to Khantali.

The _khitmutgar watched the start with grave, inscrutable eyes and finally turned back into the bungalow with the aloofness of a dweller in another sphere. The all-pervading Christmas cheer seemed to have gone to the _sahibs_' heads already. Perhaps he wondered in what condition they would return.

"I say, you don't mind?" said Noel coaxingly, as they drew ahead along the dusty road.

And Olga answered lightly, "I'm not going to mind anything or think of anything serious all day long."

He laughed. "I'm with you there. It's a jolly world, isn't it? And it's a shame to spoil it. As a matter of fact, I tried to get Peggy for a companion, but her mother wouldn't hear of it. I am too headlong and Peggy is too precious."

Olga laughed. "The Rajah was talking about a man-eating tiger at Khantali only the other day."

"Oh, yes, there is one too. But I'm afraid we are not very likely to come across him."

"Afraid! Do you want to then?"

Noel's eyes shone with enthusiasm. "I'm just aching to get a shot at one of these creatures. I've never so much as seen one in the wild yet. If the Rajah gets up an expedition I hope he'll take me along."

"He asked me if I would go," said Olga.

"Did he though? Very affable of him! I hope you said No!"

She laughed at his tone. "Well, yes, I did. But it was only because I didn't think I should like it."

"Not like a tiger-hunt!" ejaculated Noel.

She coloured a little. "Do you really like seeing things die?"

"Oh, that!" said Noel. "You're squeamish, are you? No, I'm never taken that way myself. That is in great part why I came here. I hoped--everyone thought--there was going to be some sort of shindy. But--I suppose it's the result of your clever little uncle's tactics--it seems to have fizzled out. Very satisfactory for him no doubt, but rather rough luck on us."

"Was there really any danger?" Olga asked.

"Oh, rather! The city was simply swarming with _budmashes_, and it was said that the priests had begun to preach a _jehad against the British _raj_. Then there was a bomb found on the parade-ground one night, close under the fort. It would have blown a good many of us sky-high if it had exploded, and damaged the fort as well. Badgers was quite indignant. You see the fort has just been painted and generally smartened up in anticipation of General Bassett coming this way. He is expected on a tour of inspection in a few weeks, and we naturally want to look our best when the officer commanding the district is around. Hence the righteous wrath of Badgers!"

"I never heard of all this," said Olga, from whose ears the seething unrest of the State had been studiously kept by Nick.

"No?" said Noel. "Well, there's no chance now of any fun here. I'm pinning all my hopes on the possibility of a shine on the Frontier."

Olga looked at his brown, alert face with its restless Irish eyes, and understood. "You never think of the horrid part, do you?" she said.

He laughed, and flicked his whip at a wizened monkey-face that peered at them round the bole of a tree. "What do you mean by the horrid part?"

She hesitated.

He turned his gay face to her. "Do you mean the hardships or the actual fighting?"

She gave a little shudder. Even in that brilliant warmth of sunshine she was conscious of a sense of chill. "I mean--the killing," she said. "It seems to me one could never forget that. It--it's such a frightful responsibility."

"It's all part of the game," said Noel. "I couldn't kill a man on the sly. But when the chances of being killed oneself are equal--well, I don't see anything in it."

"I see." Olga was silent a moment; then, with a curious eagerness: "And was that what you were thinking of that night when you told Peggy that sometimes it was the only thing to do?" she asked. "Forgive my asking! But I've wondered often what you meant by that."

"Great Scott!" said Noel, with a frown of bewilderment. "What night? What were we talking about?"

She explained with a touch of embarrassment. "It was the night I arrived. Don't you remember I came upon you hearing her say her prayers?--in fact you were saying them with her. I liked you for doing that," she said simply.

"Thank you," said Noel with equal simplicity. "I remember now. The kiddie said something about it being wicked to kill people, didn't she?"

"Yes. And you said--it was just before I interrupted you--you said that sometimes it was the only thing to do."

Noel nodded. "I remember. Well, can't you imagine that? Don't you agree that when a man is fighting for his country, or in defence of someone, he is justified in slaying his enemies?"

Olga was frowning also, the old, troubled frown of perplexity. "Oh, of course, when you put it like that," she said; then put her hand to her head with a puzzled air. "But that wasn't quite what I meant."

"What did you mean?" said Noel.

She shook her head. "I don't quite know. It's difficult to express things. Whenever I try to discuss anything I always seem to lose the thread."

Noel grinned boyishly. "Good for me! You'd jolly soon floor me if you didn't. Look at that parroquet, I say! He flashes like an emerald, and see that imp of a monkey! He's actually daring to rebuke us for trespassing. I call this road a disgrace to the State, don't you? If I were the Rajah--by the way, the Rajah isn't coming, is he?"

Olga thought it possible. She knew he had been asked, but he had not returned any definite reply. She hoped he would be prevented.

"Oh, don't you like him?" said Noel. "I detest him myself. That's partly why I'm so keen on smashing his team to-morrow. He's a slippery customer, he and that wily old dog Kobad Shikan. They'd erupt, the two of them, if they dared and overwhelm us all. But--they daren't!" And Noel turned his face upwards, and laughed an exceeding British laugh.

"I wonder how you know these things," said Olga, watching him.

"What? I don't know 'em of course. I'm only assuming," said Noel. "I only play about on the surface, as it were, and draw my own conclusions as to the depths. It's quite a fascinating game, and nobody's any the worse or the wiser."

"And you think Kobad Shikan untrustworthy?" questioned Olga.

"My dear girl, could anyone with any sense whatever think him anything else? Could he have run the show for so many years if he had been anything less than a crafty old schemer? Oh, you bet he hasn't been Prime Minister and Lord High Treasurer all this time for nothing. What does Nick think of him?"

"Nick never discusses any of them." Olga was considerably astonished by these revelations. "I thought it was fairly plain sailing," she said.

"Did you though? Well, Nick is a genius, as everyone knows. He is probably in the thick of everything, and knows all that goes on. He'll be a C.S.I. before he's done."

"Oh, do you think so?" said Olga, with shining eyes.

"Rather! It's pretty evident. You wait till old Reggie comes along, and ask him. He is a great backer of Nick's. So am I," said Noel modestly. "I'd back him against all the Kobad Shikans in the Empire."

This, as Noel had doubtless foreseen, proved a fruitful topic of conversation and lasted them during a considerable part of their drive. Nearly the whole of the way lay through the jungle, here and there narrowing to little more than a track over which great forest-trees stretched their boughs. It was all new country to Olga, and the quiet, sunless depths as they advanced, held her awe-struck, spellbound. She gazed into the thick undergrowth with half-fearful curiosity. Once, at a sudden loud flapping of wings, she started and changed colour.

"There must be so many wild things there," she said.

"Teeming with 'em," said Noel. "We've come along at a rattling pace. Shall we pull up and wait for the rest to turn up?"

But Olga did not want to linger on the jungle-road. "Besides we've got most of the provisions," she pointed out. "And I want to get things arranged a little before anyone comes."

They pressed on, therefore, past glades, obscure and gloomy, where the flying-foxes hung in branches from the trees, and the little striped squirrels leaped and scuttled from bough to bough, where the blue jays laughed with abandoned mirth and the parroquets squabbled unceasingly, and cunning monkey-faces peered forth, grimaced, and vanished.

"This place is full of critics," declared Noel. "Can't you feel the nasty remarks they're making?"

Olga laughed and slightly shivered. "It isn't a very genial atmosphere, is it? But I think we must be nearly there. Doesn't that look like a break in the trees ahead?"

She was right. They were coming to a clearing in the jungle. Gradually it opened before them. The trees gave place to shrubs, and the shrubs to tall _kutcha_-grass which Olga viewed with deep suspicion.

"How easily a tiger could hide there!" she said.

Noel laughed aloud. "I daresay the brute's a myth, but in any case they never come out in the day-time. Are you really nervous, or only pretending?"

She was not pretending, but she did not tell him so. The _kutcha_-grass was very thick, quite impenetrable. It stretched like a solid wall on each side of them for a considerable distance--a choked wilderness of coarse weed that grew higher than their heads.

"I say, what a charming spot!" said Noel. "Did Nick choose it for the scenery, do you think, or the excellence of the road?"

They were bumping in and out of dusty holes with a violence that threatened repeatedly to overturn them altogether.

Olga laughed rather hysterically. "I'm sure the champagne will be quite unmanageable after all this shaking up. And just look what a lather your horse is in!"

"It's a case of the wicked uncle and the lost babes over again," declared Noel. "It also smacks of _The Pilgrim's Progress_. Old Bunyan would have made some good copy out of this. He'd have dubbed you Mistress Timorous and me Master Overbold."

Olga laughed again more naturally. Noel could be very wholesome and reassuring when he liked.

"And this beastly jungle-grass," he proceeded, "is the Wilderness of Nasty Possibilities. Hold up, Tinker, my lad, and get out of it as fast as you can!"

Tinker was obviously most anxious to comply. He bent all his sweating energies to the task. The road--if such it could be called--bent in a wide curve through the high grass. As they gradually rounded this, it became evident that that stage of the journey was nearly over. The thick walls opened out. They had a glimpse of wider country ahead dotted with mango-trees.

"Hooray!" sang out Noel. "We return to civilization!"

But it was not a very populous civilization which they were approaching. They came within view of a domed temple indeed, but it was a temple set among ruins. There was no sign of any inhabitant, near or far.

"There's a well somewhere," said Olga. "Nick said we were to camp there."

"So be it!" said Noel. "It's Nick's funeral. Let us find his precious well!"

They emerged from the jungle-road with relief, and approached a group of mango-trees. These led in a somewhat broken grove to the temple which stood amidst stunted palms and cypresses. The mid-day sun was fierce, and the shade of the mangoes was welcome. For about a hundred yards they travelled over a road that was nearly choked by stones and grass, and then somewhat unexpectedly they discovered the well.

It was plainly very ancient, its round stone mouth crumbling with age. All about it and over its edges grew the coarse grass. It must have been many years since native women had foregathered there to discuss the affairs of forgotten Khantali. Above it, on rising ground, stood the temple, domed, mysterious, deserted.

"A place for satyrs to dance in, what?" suggested Noel. "We ought to have come here by moonlight. Let's get down and investigate. The others can't be far behind."

"Yes, let us fix on a place before they come!" said Olga. "It will save such a lot of discussion."

"Excellent notion! I'll tie up Tinker to one of these trees. I don't call this a very promising site for a bean-feast," said Noel, wrinkling his nose. "It's so beastly stuffy."

"Yes, we will try the temple first," said Olga. "It stands higher. There will be much more air there."

They descended. There was still no sign of the rest of the party. "I expect they gave us a start to keep out of the beastly dust," said Noel. "They'll be here directly. Nick has pitched on a secluded corner anyhow. I shouldn't think the foot of man had trodden it for a thousand years."

Olga laughed. "I wonder. It's better than the jungle, isn't it? I don't feel nearly so creepy here."

"What price tigers?" grinned Noel.

"Oh, I've got over that," she declared. "But I didn't like your Wilderness of Nasty Possibilities."

He flashed her a merry look. "You ought not to be afraid with Master Overbold by your side. As for the tiger, we may meet him yet."

"Oh, no, we shan't!" she asserted with confidence. "It would be too ludicrously like a fairy-tale."

"Horribly ludicrous!" said Noel. "Well, come along and look for him!"

So side by side they started.

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