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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Way Of An Eagle - Part 3 - Chapter 18. The Explanation
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The Way Of An Eagle - Part 3 - Chapter 18. The Explanation Post by :mkhera Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :878

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The Way Of An Eagle - Part 3 - Chapter 18. The Explanation

PART III CHAPTER XVIII. THE EXPLANATION

"Now," said Daisy briskly, "you two will just have to entertain each other for a little while, for I am going up to sit with my son while _ayah is off duty."

"Mayn't we come too?" suggested her cousin, as he rose to open the door.

She stood a moment and contemplated him with shining eyes. "You are too magnificent altogether for this doll's house of ours," she declared. "I am sure this humble roof has never before sheltered such a lion as Captain Blake Grange, V.C."

"Only an ass in a lion's skin, my dear Daisy," said Grange modestly.

She laughed. "An excellent simile, my worthy cousin. I wish I had thought of it myself."

She went lightly away with this thrust, and Grange, after a brief pause, turned slowly back into the room.

Muriel was seated in a low chair before the fire. She was working at some tiny woollen socks, knitting swiftly in dead silence.

He moved to the hearthrug, and stood there, obviously ill at ease. A certain shyness was in his nature, and Muriel's nervousness reacted upon him. He did not know how to break the silence.

At length, with an effort, he spoke. "You heard about Nick Ratcliffe's wound, I expect, Miss Roscoe?"

Muriel's hands leapt suddenly and fell into her lap. "Nick Ratcliffe! When was he wounded? No, I have heard nothing."

He looked down at her with an uneasy suspicion that he had lighted upon an unfortunate subject.

"I thought you would have heard," he said. "Didn't Daisy know? He came back to us from Simla--got himself attached to the punitive expedition. I was on the sick list myself, so did not see him, but they say he fought like a dancing dervish, and did a lot of damage too. Every one thought he would have the V.C., but there was a rumour that he refused it."

"And--he was wounded, you say?" Muriel's voice sounded curiously strained. Her knitting lay jumbled together in her lap. Her dark face was lifted, and it seemed to Grange, unskilled observer though he was, that he had never seen deeper tragedy in any woman's eyes.

Somewhat reluctantly he made reply. "He had his arm injured by a sword-thrust at the very end of the campaign. He made light of it for ever so long till things began to look serious. Then he had to give in, and had a pretty sharp time of it, I believe. He's better again now, though, so his brother told me this evening. I never heard any details. I daresay he's all right again." He stooped to pick up a completed sock that had fallen. "He's the sort of chap who always comes out on top," he ended consolingly.

Muriel stiffened a little as she sat. She had a curious longing to hear more, and an equally curious reluctance to ask for it.

"I never heard anything about it--naturally," she remarked.

Grange, having fitted the sock on to two fingers, was examining it with a contemplative air. It struck her abruptly that he was trying to say something. She waited silently, not without apprehension. She had no idea as to how much he knew of what had passed between herself and Nick.

"I say, Miss Roscoe," he blurted out suddenly, "do you hate talking about these things--very badly, I mean?"

She looked up at him, and was surprised to see emotion on his face. It had an odd effect upon her, placing her unaccountably at her ease with him, banishing all her stiffness in a moment. She remembered with a quick warmth at her heart how she had always liked this man in those far-off days of her father's protection, how she had always found something reassuring in his gentle courtesy.

"No," she said, after a moment, speaking with absolute sincerity. "I can't bear to with--most people; but I don't think I mind with you."

She saw his pleasant smile for an instant. He laid the sock down upon her knee, and in doing so touched and lightly pressed her hand.

"Thank you," he said simply. "I know I'm not good at expressing myself, but please believe that I wouldn't hurt you for the world. Miss Roscoe, I have brought some things with me I think you will like to have--things that belonged to your father. Sir Reginald Bassett entrusted them to me--left them, in fact, in my charge, as he found them. I was coming home, and I asked leave to bring them to you. Perhaps you would like me to fetch them?"

She was on her feet as he asked the question, on her face such a look of eagerness as it had not worn for many weary months.

"Oh, please--if you would!" she said, her words falling fast and breathless. "It has been--such a grief to me--that I had nothing of his to--to treasure."

He turned at once to the door. The desolation that those words of hers revealed to him went straight to his man's heart. Poor little girl! Had the parting been so infernally hard as even now to bring that look to her eyes? Was her father's memory the only interest she had left in her sad young life? And all the evening, save for that first brief moment of their meeting, he had been thinking her cold, impassive, even cynical.

With a deep pity in his soul he departed on his errand.

Returning with the soft tread which was his peculiarity, he surprised her with her face in her hands in an attitude of such abandonment that he drew back hesitating. But, suddenly aware of him, she sprang up swiftly, with no sign of tears upon her face.

"Oh, come in, come in!" she said impatiently. "Why do you stand there?"

She ran forward to meet him with hands hungrily outstretched, and he put into them those trifles which were to her so infinitely precious--a cigarette-case, a silver match-box, a pen-knife, a little old prayer-book very worn at the edges, with all the gilt faded from its leaves. She gathered them to her breast closely, passionately. All but the prayer-book had been her gifts to the father she had worshipped. With a wrung heart she called to mind the occasion upon which each had been offered, his smile of kindly appreciation, the old-world courtliness of his thanks. With loving hands she laid them down one by one, lingering over each, seeing them through a blur of tears. She was no longer conscious of Grange, as reverently, even diffidently, she opened last of all the little shabby prayer-book that her father had been wont to take with him on all his marches. She knew that he had cherished it as her mother's gift.

It opened upon a scrap of white heather which marked the Service for the Burial of the Dead. Her tears fell upon the faded sprig, and she brushed her hand swiftly across her eyes, looking more closely as certain words underlined caught her attention. Other words had been written by her father's hand very minutely in the margin.

The passage underlined was ... "not to be sorry as men without hope, for them that sleep ..." and in a moment she guessed that her father had made that mark on the day of her mother's death. It was like a message to her, the echo of a cry.

The words in the margin were so small that she had to carry them to the light to read them. And then they flashed out at her as if sprung suddenly to light on the white paper. There, in the beloved handwriting, sure and indelible, she read it, and across the desert of her heart, voiceless but insistent, there swept the hunger-cry of a man's soul: OMNIA VINCIT AMOR.

It pulsed through her like an electric current, seeming to overwhelm every other sensation, shutting her off as it were from the home-world to which she had fled, how fruitlessly, for healing. Once more skeleton fingers held hers, shifting to and fro, to and fro, slowly, ceaselessly, flashing the deep rays that shone from ruby hearts hither and thither. Once more--But she would not bear it! She was free! She was free! She flung out the hand that once had worn those rubies, and, resisting wildly, broke away from the spell that the words her father had written had woven afresh for her.

It might be true that Love conquered all things--he had believed it--but ah, what had this uncanny force to do with Love? Love was a pure, a holy thing, the bond imperishable--the Eternal Flame at which all the little torches of the world are lighted.

Moreover, there was no fear in Love, and she--she was sick with fear whenever she encountered that haunting phantom of memory.

With a start she awoke to the fact that she was not alone. Blake Grange had taken her out-flung hand, and was speaking to her softly, soothingly.

"Don't grieve so awfully, Miss Roscoe," he urged, a slight break in his own voice. "You're not left friendless. I know how it is. I've felt like it myself. But it gets better afterwards."

Muriel suffered him with a dawning sense of comfort. It surprised her to see tears in his eyes. She wondered vaguely if they were for her.

"Yes," she said, after a pause. "It does get better, I know, in a way. Or at least one gets used to an empty heart. One gets to leave off listening for what one will never, never hear any more."

"Never is a dreary word," said Grange.

She bent her head silently, and again his heart overflowed with pity for her. He looked down at the hand that lay so passively in his.

"I hope you will always think of me as a friend," he said.

She looked up at him a quick gleam of gratitude in her eyes. "Thank you," she said. "Yes, always."

He still held her hand. "You know," he said, blundering awkwardly, "I always blamed myself that--that I wasn't the one to be with you when you escaped from Wara. I might have been. But I--I wasn't prepared to pay the possible price."

She was still looking at him with those aloof, tragic eyes of hers. "I don't quite understand," she said, "I never did understand--exactly--why Nick was chosen to protect me. I always wished it had been you."

"It ought to have been," Grange said, with feeling. "It should have been. I blame myself. But Nick is a better fighter than I. He keeps his head. Moreover, he's a savage in some respects. I wasn't savage enough."

He smiled with a hint of apology.

Muriel repressed a shudder at his words. "I don't understand," she said again.

He hesitated. "It's a difficult thing to explain to you," he said reluctantly. "You see, the fellow who took charge of you had to be prepared for--well--anything. You know what devils those tribesmen are. There was to be no chance of your falling into their hands. It didn't mean just fighting for you, you understand. We would all have done that to the last drop of our blood. But--your father--was forced to ask of us--something more. And only Ratcliffe would undertake it. He's a queer chap. I used to think him a rotter till I saw him fight, and then I had to change my mind. That was, I believe, the main reason why General Roscoe selected him as your protector. He knew he could trust the fellow's nerve. The rest of us were like women compared to Nick."

He paused. Muriel's eyes had not flinched from his. She heard his explanation as one not vitally concerned.

"Have I made myself intelligible?" he asked, as she did not speak.

"Do you mean I was to be shot if things went wrong?" she returned, in her deep, quiet voice.

He nodded. "It must have been that. Your father saw it in that light, and so did we. Of course you are bound to see it too. But we stuck at it--Marshall and I. There was only Nick left, and he volunteered."

"Only Nick left!" she repeated slowly. "Nick would stick at nothing, Captain Grange."

"I honestly don't think he would," said Grange. "Still, you know, he's awfully plucky. He would have gone any length to save you first."

She drew back with a sudden shrinking of her whole body. "Oh, I know, I know!" she said. "I sometimes think there is a devil in Nick."

She turned aside, bending once more over her father's things, putting them together with unsteady fingers. So this was the answer to the riddle--the secret of his choice for her! She understood it all now.

After a short pause, she spoke again more calmly. "Did Nick ever speak to you about me?"

"Never," said Grange.

"Then please, Captain Grange"--she stood up again and faced him--"never speak to me again about him. I--want to forget him."

Very young and slight she looked standing there, and again he felt his heart stir within him with an urgent pity. Vague rumours he had heard of those few weeks at Simla during which her name and Nick Ratcliffe's had been coupled together, but he had never definitely known what had taken place. Had Nick been good to her, he wondered for the first time? How was it that the bare mention of him was unendurable to her? What had he done that she should shudder with horror when she remembered him, and should seek thus with loathing to thrust him out of her life?

Involuntarily the man's hands clenched and his blood quickened. Had the General's trust been misplaced? Was Nick a blackguard?

Finding her eyes still upon him, he made her a slight bow that was wholly free from gallantry.

"I will remember your wish, Miss Roscoe," he said. "I am sorry I mentioned a painful subject to you, though I am glad for you to know the truth. You are not vexed with me, I hope?"

Her eyes shone with sincere friendliness. "I am not vexed," she answered. "Only--let me forget--that's all."

And in those few words she voiced the desire of her soul. It was her one longing, her one prayer--to forget. And it was the one thing of all others denied to her.

In the silence that followed, she was conscious of his warm and kindly sympathy, and she was grateful for it, though something restrained her from telling him so.

Daisy, coming lightly in upon them, put an end to their tete-a-tete. She entered softly, her face alight and tender, and laid her two hands upon Grange's great shoulders as he sat before the fire.

"Come upstairs, Blake," she whispered, "and see my baby boy. He's sleeping so sweetly. I want you to see him first while he's good."

He raised his face to her smiling, his hands on hers. "I am sure to admire anything that belongs to you, Daisy," he said.

"You're a dear old pal," responded Daisy lightly. "Come along."

When they were gone Muriel spied Will Musgrave's letter lying on the ground by Grange's chair as it had evidently fallen from Daisy's dress. She went over and picked it up. It was still unopened.

With an odd little frown she set it up prominently upon the mantelpiece.

"Does Love conquer after all?" she murmured to herself, and there was a faint twist of cynicism about her lips as she asked the question. There seemed to be so many forms of Love.

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