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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Man With The Gun
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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Man With The Gun Post by :Maruli Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1704

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The Keeper Of The Door - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Man With The Gun

PART II CHAPTER IX. THE MAN WITH THE GUN

In after-days when Olga looked back upon the rest of that Christmas picnic, she could remember very little in detail of what took place. Her mind was so fully occupied with the adventure in the ruined temple that the events immediately following it made but a slight impression upon her.

That they lunched at length by the ancient well, that Nick and the Musgraves petted and made much of her, that Noel considerately amused himself with the care and entertainment of Peggy, all these things she was able afterwards vaguely to recall, but none of them remained vividly in her memory.

During the afternoon she rested, with Daisy sitting by her side and Nick smoking a few yards away, until presently the Rajah rode up unescorted and occupied Nick's attention for the remainder of the time. He came and shook hands with Olga later and congratulated her on her escape, but his manner seemed to her perfunctory and somewhat absent. Remembering Noel's words, she wondered what schemes were developing behind those dusky eyes.

Her thoughts, however, did not dwell on him; they were curiously active in another direction. Over and over again she saw herself stumbling over the stones under the cypresses and finding herself all-suddenly face to face with a man in a pith helmet. She was haunted by the thought of him, though she had not in the glare discerned him fully. She had seen him as one sees a shadow on a sheet, a momentary impression, suggestive but wholly elusive, capable of stirring her to the depths but yet too vague to grasp.

Even to her own secret heart she could not account for the wild suspicion to which that lightning glimpse had given birth. The man was probably a very ordinary Briton under ordinary circumstances. That he had a breadth of shoulder that imparted the impression of power and somewhat discounted his height, that his first appearance had been so leisurely that he might have been strolling in an English garden--the sauntering vision flashed across her as she had often seen it, hands deep in pockets, and stubby brier-pipe between his teeth--that his brevity of speech had impelled her to clearness of brain and prompt reply--all these were but incidents that might have characterized the coming of any stranger. And yet whenever she recalled any one of these details, she found her heart beating up against her throat as though it would choke her.

And why had he disappeared so suddenly, this stranger with the gun? How she wished she had had the presence of mind to turn back into the temple to find him! Why had Noel spoken of him with such evident restraint? Had he been under orders so to speak? She almost resolved to ask him, but realized immediately that for some reason she could not. Besides, had he not said she would see him again? And when she saw him--when she saw him--again she had to still the tumult of her heart--doubtless she would tell herself how utterly unreasonable her agitation concerning him had been. She would make the acquaintance of a total stranger and wonder how he had ever reminded her of the one man in her world who alone had had the power to move her thus.

So, over and over again she reassured herself, considering the matter and dismissing it, only to admit it over and over again for further consideration.

Nick made unflattering comment upon her jaded appearance when the time came to return, and bundled her unceremoniously into the Musgraves' dog-cart before Noel could put in a claim. Olga was in some sense relieved, for she did not want to talk, and Daisy fully understood and left her in peace during the drive back to Sharapura.

The brief twilight came upon them just before they reached their destination, and when they stopped before the bungalow it was nearly dark. The stately _khitmutgar was waiting for them, and helped Olga to descend. He stood by with massive patience while the Musgraves bade her farewell and drove away; then with extreme dignity he addressed her.

"There is a strange _sahib in the drawing-room, who waits to see the Miss _sahib_," he said.

Olga's heart gave a wild bound. "To see me? What name, Kasur?"

"Miss _sahib_, he gave no name. 'She knows me,' he said. 'I will announce myself.'"

Olga turned to the verandah steps, as if drawn thereto by some unseen magnetic force. Sedately Kasur followed.

"Will the Miss _sahib await the return of Ratcliffe _sahib_?" he suggested decorously.

She turned at the head of the steps. Her eyes were alight, feverish. She was strung to so high a pitch of excitement that she scarcely knew what she did.

"No, I can't wait," she threw back to him. "But Ratcliffe _sahib will be in directly. Tell him when he comes." And with that she was gone, running swiftly, as one who obeys an urgent call.

The lamps were alight in the drawing-room and the glare streamed out across the verandah. It dazzled her as she entered, but yet she did not pause. Not till that moment did she realize how great a void the absence of one man had made in her life. Not till that moment did she understand the reason of the crushing sense of loss which for so long had been with her. Perhaps she did not fully understand it then, but there was no hiding the sudden rapture of gladness at her heart. It pierced her almost with a sense of pain, and with it came a stabbing certainty that this was no new thing--that sometime, somewhere, she had felt it all before.

He was on his feet lounging against the mantelpiece as she entered, but he straightened himself to meet her, and dazzled though she was, she saw his outstretched hand.

As it closed upon her own, she found her voice, though panting between tears and laughter. "Max! You--you!"

"A happy Christmas to you!" said Max.

He grasped her hand very firmly. How well she remembered that strong restraining grip! How often had she felt the controlling magic of it! Once she had even hotly resented it; but to-day--to-day--

She saw his mouth go up at one corner in the old, quizzing way. "'If my heart by signs can tell--'" he began, and ended, openly smiling, "I should almost dare to fancy you were--well, shall we say not annoyed?--to see me."

"Annoyed!" she laughed, still struggling with an outrageous desire to cry.

He looked at her critically. "You haven't grown any plumper since I saw you last, fair lady. Do you live on air in these parts? You will be flattered to hear that your resemblance to the great Nick is more pronounced than ever. Where is he, by the way? I hope he hasn't been eaten by a tiger, though I scarcely think any tiger, would be such a fool as to expect to find any nourishment in him."

"Oh, don't be horrid!" she said, laughing more naturally. "That's too gruesome a joke after what happened this afternoon."

"I wasn't joking," said Max. "I'm a serious-minded person. And what did happen this afternoon--if it isn't indiscreet to ask?"

She raised her eyes to his in astonishment. "But you were there!" she said.

"Who told you so?" demanded Max.

"I saw you myself, I spoke to you. I told you about--about Noel being in the temple--with the tiger." She halted a little over the explanation.

Max smiled at her--a curious smile that seemed to express relief. "I didn't think you recognized me in a helmet," he said. "Yes, I was there. I'd been on the brute's track since daybreak. I'm told that it's the proper thing to let natives do all the stalking in this country. But to my mind that's half the fun. Gives the tiger a sporting chance, too."

"You were actually hunting it all by yourself!" said Olga, with a quick shudder.

Her hand still lay in his; he gave it a sudden sharp squeeze. "Don't shiver like that! It's a sign of too vivid an imagination. Yes, I was all on my own, and enjoyed it. It was my first tiger too. I've learned quite a lot about the Indian jungle to-day. What made Nick choose the haunts of a man-eater for his Christmas party? Was it one of his little jokes?"

"We didn't believe in the man-eater," said Olga, beginning to make subtle efforts to recover possession of her hand. "There hadn't been one so near for years, and Nick said he thought it was bunkum."

"There," said Max, "he did not display his usual shrewdness of intelligence. Where is the little god by the way?"

"He's following on with Noel. They stopped behind to finish packing."

Max's fingers closed more firmly upon hers, so that without open resistance she could not free herself. "Noel seems to have developed into quite a picturesque cavalier," he observed impersonally.

He was watching her, she knew; and over her face there ran a great wave of colour. She was furiously aware of it even before she saw his faint smile. Desperately she sought to turn the subject.

"Why didn't you come back to us when the tiger was dead?" she said. "Why didn't you let Noel tell me you were there?"

She caught the old glint of mockery in his eyes as he made reply. "As you have foreseen, fair lady," he observed, "one answer will suffice for both questions. It was not my turn just then. Moreover, you knew I was there."

"I wasn't absolutely sure," she protested quickly. "I thought it probable that I had made a mistake."

"Didn't you expect to see me?" he asked her coolly.

She stared at him. "How could I? I never dreamed of your being in India."

He passed the question by. "And yet you were the only person in India whom I took the trouble to inform of my arrival."

Her eyes widened. "What can you mean?"

"Didn't you get a message from me this morning?" he asked.

"From you?" she said incredulously.

"I sent you a message," said Max.

Her hand leaped suddenly in his. So that was the explanation! She began to tremble. "I--didn't understand," she said piteously.

She wished he would turn his eyes from her face, but he kept them fixed upon her. "I wonder who got the credit for it," he said.

She turned from his scrutiny in quivering silence. But her hand remained in his.

He took her gently by the shoulder. "Olga, tell me!" he said.

"I didn't know it came from you," she whispered.

"Why not? I wrote a line with it."

"Yes, but--but--"

"But--" said Max, with quiet insistence.

She tried to laugh. "It was very absurd of me. The initials weren't very clear. I thought they were--someone else's."

"Noel's?" he said.

She nodded.

There was a brief silence, during which she dared not look round. Then he spoke, his voice drily humorous. "I suppose you thanked him for it then?"

"No, I didn't," she said. "At least--at least--I was vexed, but I didn't want to hurt his feelings."

"No?" said Max, in the same cynical tone.

Her hand slipped free at last. She spoke more firmly. "I told him I couldn't accept it."

"Poor Noel!" observed Max. He took his hand from her shoulder also, and she knew that he thrust it into his pocket. "And what did he say to that?"

She hesitated. "Well, of course he--he explained--that he hadn't sent it."

"And you believed him?"

"Of course I did. He--we thought perhaps it was a hoax."

Max grunted; she wondered if he were seriously displeased. And then abruptly he turned her thoughts in another direction. "Well, now that you know the truth,--what are you going to do about it?"

The question came with the utmost coolness, but yet in some fashion it sounded like a challenge. She felt compelled to turn and face him.

Thick-set and British, he confronted her. "Before you decide," he said, "there's just one little thing I should like you to remember. You may not have been in love with me--I don't think you were; but you engaged yourself to me quite a long time ago."

Olga's hands were locked together. But she met the challenge unflinching, unafraid. Quite suddenly she knew how to answer it. Yet she waited, not answering, her pale eyes shining, her whole being strung to throbbing expectation.

He came a step nearer to her, looking at her very intently. "Well?" he said.

She made a little fluttering movement with her clasped hands. Her face was raised unfalteringly to his. "I haven't forgotten," she said.

"But you thought I had," said Max.

Her lips quivered. "So many things have happened since then," she said, in a low voice.

"What of that?" he said, and suddenly there was a deep note in his voice that she had never heard before. "Do you think that so long as the world holds us both I would be content without you?"

The words were few, but they thrilled her as never had she been thrilled before. There came again to her that breathless feeling as though an immense wave had suddenly burst over her. She raised her face gasping, half-frightened. She even had a wild impulse to turn and flee.

But it was gone on the instant, for very suddenly Max Wyndham's arms closed about her, holding her fast, and she had no choice but to surrender. With a sob she yielded herself to him, clinging very tightly, her face hidden with a desperate shyness against his shoulder.

He spoke no word of love, simply holding her in silence during those first great moments. But at length his hand came up and lay quietly, reassuringly, upon her head. She quivered under it for a little. He waited till she was still.

"Olga," he said then, speaking very softly, "will you tell me something?"

"Perhaps," she whispered back.

"Why are you afraid of me? You never used to be."

She clung a little closer to him and was silent.

"Don't you know?" he said.

"Not altogether." Tremulously she made answer.

"I've had a feeling--all this time--that you were angry with me for some reason."

"For what reason?" he said.

"That's what I never could remember."

The hand upon her head moved and lightly stroked her cheek; then very gently but with evident determination turned her face upwards. His eyes, green and piercing, looked straight into her soul.

"You think that still?" he asked.

"No." Panting, she answered him; for deep within her, memory stirred afresh. The phantom of her dread lurked once more darkly in the background. The last time those eyes had searched her thus, her soul had been in agony. Wherefore? Wherefore? She struggled to remember.

And then in a flash all was gone. The past went from her. She was back again in the present, with the throbbing consciousness of Max's arms enfolding her, and the overwhelming knowledge that Max loved her filling all her world.

"You're not afraid now," he said.

"No," she answered softly.

"Then--" he set her free, bending to her, his face close to hers--"I may go on 'breathing and hoping,' may I, without running any risk of scaring you away?"

She laughed--a faint, sweet laugh more eloquent than words, realizing fully that, albeit her defences were down, he would not enter her citadel until she gave him leave.

His chivalrous regard for her went straight to her heart. In Noel it would not have surprised her, but in Max it was so unexpected that for a moment she hardly knew how to meet it.

He waited with the utmost patience, his smile, subtly softened but still unmistakably humorous, hovering at the corner of his mouth.

And so after a moment, half-laughing, with a face on fire, she reached out, took the red head between her hands, and bestowed a very small, shy kiss upon his cheek.

The next instant he held her crushed against his heart while his lips pressed hers with all the fiery passion of a man's worship....

It must have been several minutes later that a cracked voice was suddenly uplifted in the verandah singing a plantation love-song with more of pathos than tunefulness.

Olga started at the sound, started violently and guiltily, and slipped out of reach with a scarlet countenance.

"Nick!" she whispered.

Max glanced at the open window, raised his brows, shrugged his shoulders, and strolled across to it. Nick it was, stationed at a discreet distance, but dimly discernible in the darkness.

"Let me go to him first!" murmured Olga.

She passed Max with a touch of the hand and a fleeting smile, and was gone.

Nick's plaintive lament came to an abrupt conclusion two seconds later, and Max turned back into the room with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, and one side of his mouth cocked at an angle expressive of extreme satisfaction. He had dared a good deal that day, far more than Olga vaguely dreamed, and events had proved him more than justified.

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