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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 8. The Soul Of A Hero
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 8. The Soul Of A Hero Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :690

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 8. The Soul Of A Hero


The way was exceedingly rough and here and there almost overgrown with coarse weeds. Near the temple, the ground ascended fairly steeply, and the path narrowed so that it was impossible to walk abreast.

"Wonder if there are any of those jolly little _karaits about," speculated Noel. "If you don't mind, I'll go first."

"I believe I saw a scorpion!" said Olga, as he took the lead.

He laughed at her over his shoulder. "Or a lizard! Stick to it, Mistress Timorous! You'll develop a taste for adventure soon."

"Oh, I'm not a coward really," she protested. "At least I never used to be!"

"You are the sweetest girl in the world," said Noel, in a tone that reduced Olga to instant and uncompromising silence.

She could not refuse his hand, however, when he paused to help her over the rough places. It was an utter impossibility to be ungracious to Noel for long. He was far too seductive.

They reached the top of the ascent and found themselves close to the temple. The place was a ruin. Blocks of stone, that once had been part of its structure, were scattered in all directions; and, advancing, they presently stumbled upon the monstrous head of a broken idol.

"This is the temple of Dagon," said Noel dramatically. "I don't think it's a very suitable place for a picnic. One might find bits of human sacrifices about and that would spoil the appetite."

"Oh, don't be gruesome!" Olga besought him. "Let's go in, as we are here."

They crossed the stone-strewn space through the shadowy cypresses, and entered under the dome. The place was dark and very eerie. Their footsteps echoed weirdly, and instantly there ensued a wild commotion overhead of owls and flying-foxes.

Olga started violently, and Noel looked upwards with a laugh that echoed and echoed in sinister repetition.

"What a ghastly place!" whispered Olga, as it died away at last.

The whisper was taken up and repeated from wall to wall till the further darkness swallowed it. Olga's hand went out instinctively and closed upon Noel's arm. Her nerves were not strung to this.

Almost before she knew it, he had drawn her to him, and slipped the arm about her. She looked up swiftly to protest, but the words were never spoken. They died upon her lips. For even as she opened them to speak there came an awful sound from the darkness.

It began deep and low, swelling in volume till it filled the building, reverberating from stone to stone, vibrating along the broken floor--a growl rising to a furious snarl--the unmistakable voice of an angry beast.

Olga stood as one petrified, feeling the arm around her tighten to a grip, but too lost in horror to take any note thereof. Staring widely into the darkness before them, she saw two points of light, red, ominous, advancing as it were by swift stealth out of the deep shadow.

At the same moment, Noel by a sudden, wholly unexpected movement thrust her behind him.

"Go!" he said. "Go for your life! Get back to Tinker and warn the rest! I'll keep the brute from following you."

His voice was short and authoritative; it held compulsion. In that moment of emergency he was a boy no longer, but a man, cool and strong and undismayed--a man to command obedience.

"Go quickly!" he said. "Remember it's up to you to warn them. This other is my job. Good-bye!"

He spoke without turning his head; yet the very brevity of his speech seemed to give her strength. Mechanically, she moved to obey.

Later she never remembered passing out of that place of horror. She went, hardly knowing what she did. The sudden smiting of the sunshine between the cypress boughs was the first she knew of having left the temple behind her. As one stricken blind, she moved, too stunned for panic.

And then--how it happened she was utterly unable to realize--as if he had dropped from the sky a man stood suddenly in her path.

He wore a pith helmet dragged forward over his eyes, and she was too dazzled by the sun to see his face. But there was something--something in his gait, his figure, his attitude--that sent a wild thrill through her, waking her to vivid, pulsing life. With an incoherent cry she clutched him by the arm.

"The tiger!" she gasped. "The tiger!"

"Where?" he said.

She pointed back over her shoulder, her eyes dilated, anguished. "In the temple,--and Noel is there! He will be killed!"

In a single movement he had freed his arm and was gone. She heard his feet racing over the stones, and she turned up her face to the blinding sunshine and frantically prayed....

Minutes--or could it have been only seconds?--passed. From below her came Tinker's frightened neigh. She could hear him stamping in the undergrowth. But she had no further thought of going to him. That spot with all its terrors held her chained.

Suddenly from behind her there came a loud report--a nerve-shattering sound. She whizzed round. He had a gun, then. She had not seen that he had a gun.

But what had happened? What? What? She was trembling so that she could barely stand, yet she forced her quaking limbs to move. Back she stumbled, back through the glaring sunlight. Once she fell, and saw a lizard--or was it a scorpion?--flick from her path. And then she was up again, panting, sobbing, utterly unnerved, but struggling with all her failing strength to reach the ruined temple, to see for herself what lay there.

An awful silence brooded across the stony space. It was as though a curse had fallen upon it. She tried to lift her voice, to call to Noel, to make some sound in the stillness. But her throat was powerless.

She thought he must be dead. She thought that her brain had tricked her, that she had only dreamed of the coming of the second man, had dreamed of the gun-shot, had dreamed all but those dreadful gleaming eyes coming stealthily nearer and nearer out of the dark.

Again she tried to call, and again piteously she failed. She reached the temple staggering, her hands stretched gropingly before her. And even as she did so, the silence was rent by a sound that convinced her wholly that she was indeed dreaming--a sound that echoed and echoed through the gloom, making her pulses leap again in spite of her--the sound of a ringing British laugh.

She fell against the broken marble of the doorway, her hands pressed fast over her face. She was struggling with herself, consciously striving to nerve herself to go in and find his dead body. Of any personal danger she was past thinking. Had the tawny body of their enemy sprung out upon her then she would scarcely have known fear.

And so when Noel came suddenly to her, caught her hands into his own, making her look up, his brown face bent close to hers, she simply gazed at him uncomprehendingly, not believing that she saw him.

Swift concern flashed into his eyes. He drew her to him and held her in his arms. "Olga,--Olga dear, don't you know me?" he said. "You've had a beastly fright, haven't you? But the brute's dead, and no one else is any the worse. There, there! It's all right. Did you think I was killed and eaten?"

He was holding her closely now. His voice came softly, on a winning note of tenderness, into her ear. "And would you have cared--would you have cared--darling--if I had been?"

But she leaned against him quivering and speechless, unresisting, unresponding.

He held her for a space in silence, patting her shoulder reassuringly. But it was not in him to be silent for long. After a few seconds he was speaking again with cheery confidence.

"Let's get out of this ghastly place! The rest of the party must be coming along now. It was a nasty experience, wasn't it? But you're getting better, eh? That chap with the gun came up just in time to save my bacon. You saw him, didn't you?"

"Yes," she whispered feebly.

His arms relaxed a little. He looked down into her face. "Better now?"

With an effort she answered him. "Yes,--getting better."

"Can you walk?" he said. "Or shall I carry you?"

That roused her somewhat. "Oh, let me walk!" she said; and, after a moment: "Forgive me for being foolish! It--it was the shock. I shall be all right now. Just let me hold your arm."

He gave it, still looking at her in a fashion which she was at no loss to understand. Instinctively she sought to divert his attention. "Tell me what happened! Who--who was the man with the gun?"

His expression changed a little. A momentary shadow crossed his face. He answered her with a touch of restraint. "Oh, he's a fellow I've met before. You'll see him again, I daresay. He has been chasing around after this infernal tiger since early morning. Had a shot at the brute once and wounded him. Been hunting for him ever since."

"All alone?" asked Olga in amazement.

Noel nodded. "Cracked thing to do, but as he's bagged his game I suppose he'll do it again."

"And what is he doing now?" asked Olga, as they descended the narrow path.

"Oh, he was going to clear out. He was awfully disgusted that the skin wasn't worth having. And there wasn't much of the head left." Noel made a face. "I shouldn't advise any of our picnic party to go near that beastly temple. It's a deal too sacrificial just now. Hullo! Here come some of 'em at last! You'll be glad to get back under Nick's wing."

He smiled at her quizzically, and Olga smiled back reassured. But reaching the lower ground, she detained him for an instant.

"Noel," she said rather haltingly, "there are some things beyond words, and--and I think this is one of them. But I shall never forget what you did. It--it was--magnificent."

"Great Scotland!" said Noel. He spoke banteringly, but she could not meet his eyes. "And you think I could have done anything else?"

She smiled rather wistfully. "Not you--perhaps," she said. "But it was fine of you all the same."

"And you're--not sorry--I wasn't eaten?" he suggested.

She gave him her hand with a gesture half-appealing. "We won't talk about it," she said. "It just won't bear talking about."

Her voice trembled a little but she was plainly anxious that he should not notice it. He stood a moment silent, holding her hand. From the direction of the jungle-road there came the sounds of the approaching party--the rattle of hoofs and jingle of bells mingling with laughing voices and gay shouts. It seemed incredible that a bare ten minutes had elapsed since their own arrival upon the scene.

Noel's hand tightened a little upon hers. He bent with a certain serious gallantry that became him well, and carried it to his lips.

"My lady's wishes shall be obeyed always," he said gravely.

She knew that he meant her to ascribe a full meaning to his words. And she let herself be reassured, for that she knew him now to possess the soul of a hero.

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