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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Way Of An Eagle - Part 3 - Chapter 31. The Eagle Hovers
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The Way Of An Eagle - Part 3 - Chapter 31. The Eagle Hovers Post by :paulcooper Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :2076

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The Way Of An Eagle - Part 3 - Chapter 31. The Eagle Hovers

PART III CHAPTER XXXI. THE EAGLE HOVERS

Luncheon in the low, old-fashioned dining-room at Redlands with its windows facing the open sea, with Olga beaming at the head of the table, would have been a peaceful and pleasant meal, had Muriel's state of mind allowed her to enjoy it. But Nick's treatment of her overture had completely banished all enjoyment for her. She forced herself to eat and to appear unconcerned, but she was quivering inwardly with a burning sense of resentment. She was firmly determined that she would never be alone with him again. He had managed by those few scoffing words of his to arouse in her all the bitterness of which she was capable. If she had feared him before, she hated him now with the whole force of her nature.

He seemed to be blissfully unconscious of her hostility and played the part of host with complete ease of manner. Long before the meal was over, Grange had put aside his sullenness, and they were conversing together as comrades.

Nick had plenty to say. He spoke quite openly of his illness, and declared himself to have completely recovered from it. "Even Jim has ceased his gruesome threats," he said cheerily. "There will be no more lopping of branches this season. Just as well, for I chance to have developed an affection for what is left."

"You're going back to the Regiment, I suppose?" Blake questioned.

"No, he isn't," thrust in Olga, and was instantly frowned upon by Nick.

"Speak when you're spoken to, little girl! That's a question you are not qualified to answer. I'm on half-pay at present, and I haven't made up my mind."

"I should quit in your place," Grange remarked, with his eyes on the dazzling sea.

"No doubt you would," Nick responded dryly. "And what should you advise, Muriel?"

The question was unexpected, but she had herself in hand, and answered it instantly. "I certainly shouldn't advise you to quit."

He raised his eyebrows. "Might one ask why?"

She was quite ready for him, inspired by an overmastering longing to hurt him if that were possible. "Because if you gave up your profession, you would be nothing but a vacuum. If the chance to destroy life were put out of your reach, you would simply cease to exist."

She spoke rapidly, her voice pitched very low. She was trembling all over, and her hands were clenched under the table to hide it.

The laugh with which Nick received her words jarred intolerably upon her. She heard nothing in it but deliberate cruelty.

"Great Lucifer!" he said. "You have got me under the microscope with a vengeance. But you can't see through me, you know. I have a reverse side. Hadn't you better turn me over and look at that? There may be sorcery and witchcraft there as well."

There might be. She could well have imagined it. But these were lesser things in which she had no concern. She turned his thrust aside with disdain.

"I am not sufficiently interested," she said. "The little I know is enough."

"Well hit!" chuckled Nick. "I retire from the fray, discomfited. Olga _mia_, I wish you would find the cigars. You know where they are."

Olga sprang to do his bidding. Having handed the box to Grange she came to Nick and stood beside him while she cut and lighted a cigar for him.

He put his arm round her for a moment, and she stooped a flushed face and kissed the top of his head.

"Run along," said Nick. "Take Muriel into the garden. She hasn't seen it all."

Muriel rose. "We mustn't be late in starting back," she remarked to Blake.

But Olga lingered to whisper vehemently in Nick's ear.

He laughed and shook his head. "Go, child, go! You don't know anything about it. And Muriel is waiting. You should never keep a guest waiting."

Olga went reluctantly. They passed out into the clear June sunshine together and down towards the shady shrubberies beyond the lawns.

"Can Nick play tennis?" Muriel asked, as they crossed a marked-out court.

"Yes, he can do anything," the child said proudly. "He was on horseback this morning, and he managed splendidly. We generally play tennis in the evening. He almost always wins. His services are terrific. I can't think how he does it. He calls it juggling. I try to manage with only one hand sometimes--just to keep him company--but I always make a mess of things. There's no one in the world as clever as Nick."

Muriel felt inclined to agree with her, though in her opinion this distinguishing quality was not an altogether admirable one. She infinitely preferred people with fewer brains. She would not, however, say this to Olga, and they paced on together under the trees in silence. Suddenly a warm hand slid within her arm, and Olga's grey eyes, very loving and wistful, looked up into hers.

"Muriel darling," she whispered softly, "don't you--don't you--like Nick after all?"

The colour rushed over Muriel's face in a vivid flood.

"Like him! Like him!" she stammered. "Why do you ask?"

"Because, dear--don't be vexed, I love you frightfully--you did hurt him so at lunch," explained Olga, pressing very close to her.

"Hurt him! Hurt him!" Again Muriel repeated her words, then, recovering sharply, broke into a sudden laugh. "My dear child, I couldn't possibly do such a thing if I tried."

"But you did, you did!" persisted Olga, a faint note of indignation in her voice. "You don't know Nick. He feels--tremendously. Of course you might not see it, for it doesn't often show. But I know--I always know--when he is hurt, by the way he laughs. And he was hurt to-day."

She stuck firmly to her point, notwithstanding Muriel's equally persistent attitude of incredulity, till even Muriel was conscious at last in her inner soul of a faint wonder, a dim and wholly negligible sense of regret. Not that she would under any circumstances have recalled that thrust of hers. She felt it had been dealt in fair fight; but even in fair fight there come sometimes moments of regret, when one feels that the enemy's hand has been intentionally slack. She knew well that, had he chosen, Nick might have thrust back, instantly and disconcertingly, as his manner was. But he had refrained, merely covering up his wound--if wound there had been--with the laugh that had so wrung Olga's loving heart. His ways were strange. She would never understand him. But she would like to have known how deep that thrust had gone.

Could she have overheard the conversation between Nick and his remaining guest that followed her departure, she might have received enlightenment on this point, but Nick took very good care to ensure that that conversation should be overheard by none.

As soon as Grange had finished his coffee, he proposed a move to the library, and led the way thither, leaving his own drink untouched behind him.

The library was a large and comfortable apartment completely shut away from the rest of the house, and singularly ill-adapted for eavesdroppers. The windows looked upon a wide stretch of lawn upon which even a bird could scarcely have lingered unnoticed. The light that filtered in through green sun-blinds was cool and restful. An untidy writing-table and a sofa strewn with cushions in disorderly attitudes testified to the fact that Nick had appropriated this room for his own particular den. There was also a sun-bonnet tossed upon a chair which seemed to indicate that Olga at least did not regard his privacy as inviolable. The ancient brown volumes stacked upon shelves that ranged almost from floor to ceiling were comfortably undisturbed. It was plainly a sanctum in which ease and not learning ruled supreme.

Nick established his visitor in an easy-chair and hunted for an ash-tray. Grange watched him uncomfortably.

"I'm awfully sorry about your arm, Ratcliffe," he said at length. "A filthy bit of bad luck that."

"Damnable," said Nick.

"I've been meaning to look you up for a long time," Grange proceeded, "but somehow it hasn't come off."

Nick laughed rather dryly. He was perfectly well aware that Grange had been steadily avoiding him ever since his return. "Very good of you," he said, subsiding upon the sofa and pulling the cushions about him. "I've been saving up my congratulations for you all these weeks. I might have written, of course, but I had a notion that the spoken word would be more forcible."

Grange stirred uneasily, neither understanding nor greatly relishing Nick's tone. He wished vehemently that he would leave the subject alone.

Nick, however, had no such intention. A faint fiendish smile was twitching the corners of his lips. He did not even glance in Blake's direction. There was no need.

"Well, I wish you joy," he said lightly.

"Thank you," returned Grange, without elation and with very little gratitude. In some occult fashion, Nick was making it horribly awkward for him. He longed to change the subject, but could find nothing to say--possibly because Nick quite obviously had not yet done with it.

"Going to get married before you sail?" he asked abruptly.

"I don't think so." Very reluctantly Grange made reply.

"Why not?" said Nick.

"Muriel doesn't want to be married till she is out of mourning," Grange explained.

"Why doesn't she go out of mourning then?"

Grange didn't know, hadn't even thought of it.

"Perhaps she will elect to wear mourning all her life," suggested Nick. "Have you thought of that?"

There was a distinct gibe in this, and Grange at once retreated to a less exposed position. "I am quite willing to wait for her," he said. "And she knows it."

"You're deuced easily pleased then," rejoined Nick. "And let me tell you--for I'm sure you don't know--there's not a single woman under the sun who appreciates that sort of patience."

Grange ignored the information with a decidedly sullen air. He did not regard Nick as particularly well qualified to give him advice upon such a subject.

After a moment Nick saw his attitude, and laughed aloud. "Yes, say it, man! It's quite true in a sense, and I shouldn't contradict you if it weren't. But has it never occurred to you that I was under a terrific disadvantage from the very beginning? Do you remember that I undertook the job that you shirked? Or do you possibly present the matter to yourself--and others--in some more attractive form?"

He turned upon his elbow with the question and regarded Grange with an odd expectancy. But Grange smoked in silence, not raising his eyes.

Suddenly Nick spoke in a different tone, a tone that was tense without vibrating. "It doesn't matter how you put it. The truth remains. You didn't love her then. If you had loved her, you must have been ready--as I was ready--to make the final sacrifice. But you were not ready. You hung back. You let me take the place which only a man who cared enough to protect her to the uttermost could have taken. You let me do this thing, and I did it. I brought her through untouched. I kept her--night and day I kept her--from harm of any sort. And she has been my first care ever since. You won't believe this, I daresay, but it's true. And--mark this well--I will only let her go to the man who will make her happy. Once I meant to be that man. You don't suppose, do you, that I brought her safe through hell just for the pleasure of seeing her marry another fellow? But it's all the same now what I did it for. I've been knocked out of the running." His eyelids suddenly quivered as if at a blow. "It doesn't matter to you how. It wasn't because she fancied any one else. She hadn't begun to think of you in those days. I let her go, never mind why. I let her go, but she is still in my keeping, and will be till she is the actual property of another man--yes, and after that too. I saved her, remember. I won the right of guardianship over her. So be careful what you do. Marry her if you love her. But if you don't, leave her alone. She shall be no man's second best. That I swear."

He ceased abruptly. His yellow face was full of passion. His hand was clenched upon the sofa-cushion. The whole body of the man seemed to thrill and quiver with electric force.

And then in a moment it all passed. As at the touching of a spring his muscles relaxed. The naked passion was veiled again--the old mask of banter replaced.

He stretched out his hand to the man who had sat in silence and listened to that one fierce outburst of a force which till then had contained itself.

"I speak as a fool," he said lightly. "Nothing new for me, you'll say. But just for my satisfaction--because she hates me so--put your hand in mine and swear you will seek her happiness before everything else in the world. I shall never trouble you again after this fashion. I have spoken."

Blake sat for several seconds without speaking. Then, as if impelled thereto, he leaned slowly forward and laid his hand in Nick's. He seemed to have something to say, but it did not come.

Nick waited.

"I swear," Blake said at length.

His voice was low, and he did not attempt to look Nick in the face, but he obviously meant what he said.

And Nick seemed to be satisfied. In less than five seconds, he had tossed the matter carelessly aside as one having no further concern in it. But the memory of that interview was as a searing flame to Blake's soul for long after.

For he knew that the man from whom Muriel had sought his protection was more worthy of her than he, and his heart cried bitter shame upon him for that knowledge.

It was with considerable difficulty that he responded to Nick's airy nothings during the half-hour that followed, and the unusual alacrity with which he seized upon his host's suggestion that he might care to see the garden, testified to his relief at being released from the obligation of doing so.

They went out together on to the wide lawn and sauntered down to a summer-house on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the whole mighty expanse of sea. It lay dreaming in the sunlight, with hardly a ripple upon the long white beach below. And here they came upon Muriel and Olga, sitting side by side on the grass.

Olga had just finished pulling a daisy to pieces. She tossed it away at Nick's approach, and sprang to meet him.

"It's very disappointing," she declared. "It's the fourth time I've done it, and it always comes the same. I've been making the daisies tell Muriel's fortune, and it always comes to 'He would if he could, but he can't.' You try this time, Nick."

"All right. You hold the daisy," said Nick.

Muriel looked up with a slightly heightened colour. "I think we ought to be going," she remarked.

"We have just ordered the horses for four o'clock," Grange said apologetically.

She glanced at the watch on her wrist--half-past three. Nick, seated cross-legged on the grass in front of her, had already, with Olga's able assistance, begun his game.

Swiftly the tiny petals fell from his fingers. He was very intent, and in spite of herself Muriel became intent too, held by a most unaccountable fascination. So handicapped was he that he could not even pull a flower to pieces without assistance. And yet--

Suddenly he looked across at her. "He loves her!" he announced.

"Oh, Nick!" exclaimed Olga reproachfully. "You cheated! You pulled off two!"

"He usually does cheat," Muriel observed, plucking a flower of grass and regarding it with absorption.

"So do you," retorted Nick unexpectedly.

"I!" She looked at him in amazement. "What do you mean?"

"I sha'n't tell you," he returned, "because you know, or you would know if you took the trouble to find out. Grange, I wish you would give me a light. Hullo, Olga, there's a hawk! See him? Straight above that cedar!"

All turned to look at the dark shape of the bird hovering in mid-air. Seconds passed. Suddenly there was a flashing, downward swoop, and the sky was empty.

Olga exclaimed, and Nick sent up a wild whoop of applause. Muriel gave a great start and glanced at him. For a single instant his look met hers; then with a sick shudder, she turned aside.

"You are cold," said Grange.

Yes, she was cold. It was as if an icy hand had closed upon her heart. As from an immense distance, she heard Olga's voice of protest.

"Oh, Nick, how can you cheer?"

And his careless reply. "My good child, don't grudge the poor creature his dinner. Even a bird of prey must live. Come along! We'll go in to tea. Muriel is cold."

They went in, and again his easy hospitality overcame all difficulties.

When at length the visitors rode away, they left him grinning a cheery farewell from his doorstep. He seemed to be in the highest spirits.

They were more than half-way home when Muriel turned impetuously to her companion, breaking a long silence.

"Blake," she said, "I am ready to marry you as soon as you like."

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