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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Way Of An Eagle - Part 4 - Chapter 39. By Single Combat
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The Way Of An Eagle - Part 4 - Chapter 39. By Single Combat Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Ethel May Dell Date :May 2012 Read :1131

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The Way Of An Eagle - Part 4 - Chapter 39. By Single Combat

PART IV CHAPTER XXXIX. BY SINGLE COMBAT

By eight o'clock Nick was lounging in the hall, awaiting his guest, but it was more than a quarter of an hour later that the latter presented himself.

Nick himself admitted him with a cheery grin. "Come in," he said. "You've had a pretty filthy walk."

"Infernal," said Grange gloomily.

He entered with a heavy, rather bullied air, as if he had come against his will. Shaking hands with his host, he glanced at him somewhat suspiciously.

"Glad you managed to come," said Nick hospitably.

"What did you want to see me for?" asked Grange.

"The pleasure of your society, of course." Nick's benignity was unassailable, but there was a sharp edge to it somewhere of which Grange was uneasily aware. "Come along and dine. We can talk afterwards."

Grange accompanied him moodily to the dining-room. "I thought you were away," he remarked, as they sat down.

"I was," said Nick. "Came back last night. When do you sail?"

"On Friday. I came down to say good-bye."

"Muriel is at Weir," observed Nick.

"Yes. I shall go on there to-morrow. Daisy is only here for a night or two to pack up her things."

"And then?" said Nick.

Grange stiffened perceptibly. "I don't know what her plans are. She never makes up her mind till the last minute."

Nick laughed. "She evidently hasn't taken you into her confidence. She is going East this winter."

Grange looked up sharply. "I don't believe it."

"It's true all the same," said Nick indifferently, and forthwith forsook the subject.

He started other topics, racing, polo, politics, airily ignoring his guest's undeniable surliness, till at last Grange's uneasiness began to wear away. He gradually overcame his depression, and had even managed to capture some of his customary courtesy before the end of dinner. His attitude was quite friendly when they finally adjourned to the library to smoke.

Nick followed him into the room and stopped to shut the door.

Grange had gone straight to the fire, and he did not see him slip something into his pocket as he came forward.

But he did after several minutes of abstraction discover something not quite normal in Nick's silence, and glanced down at him to ascertain what it was.

Nick had flung himself into a deep easy-chair, and was lying quite motionless with his head back upon the cushion. His eyes were closed. He had been smoking when he entered, but he had dropped his cigar half consumed into an ash-tray.

Grange looked at him with renewed uneasiness, and looked away again. He could not help feeling that there was some moral tension somewhere; but he had never possessed a keen perception, he could not have said wherein it lay.

He retired into his shell once more and sat down facing his host in silence that had become dogged.

Suddenly, without moving, Nick spoke.

His words were slightly more deliberate than usual, very even, very distinct. "To come to the point," he said. "I saw you on the shore this afternoon--you and Mrs. Musgrave."

"What?" Grange gave a great start and stared across at him, gripping the arms of his chair.

Nick's face, however, remained quite expressionless. "I saw you," he repeated.

With an effort Grange recovered himself. "Did you though? I wondered how you knew I was down here. Where were you?"

There was an abrupt tremor behind Nick's eyelids, but they remained closed. "I was on the top of the cliff, on my own ground, watching you."

Dead silence followed his answer--a silence through which the sound of the sea half a mile away swelled terribly, like the roar of a monster in torment.

Then at last Nick's eyes opened. He looked Grange straight in the face. "What are you going to do?" he said.

Grange's hands dropped heavily from the chair-arms, and his whole great frame drooped slowly forward. He made no further attempt at evasion, realising the utter futility of such a course.

"Do!" he said wearily. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" said Nick swiftly.

"No, nothing," he repeated, staring with a dull intentness at the ground between his feet. "It's an old story, and the less said about it the better. I can't discuss it with you or any one. I think it was a pity you took the trouble to watch me this afternoon."

He spoke with a certain dignity, albeit he refused to meet Nick's eyes. He looked unutterably tired.

Nick lay quite motionless in his chair, inscrutably still, save for the restless glitter behind his colourless eyelashes. At length, "Do you remember a conversation we had in this room a few months ago?" he asked.

Grange shook his head slightly, too engrossed with his miserable thoughts to pay much attention.

"Well, think!" Nick said insistently. "It had to do with your engagement to Muriel Roscoe. Perhaps you have forgotten that too?"

Grange looked up then, shaking off his lethargy with a visible effort. He got slowly to his feet, and drew himself up to his full giant height.

"No," he said, "I have not forgotten it."

"Then," said Nick, "once more--what are you going to do?"

Grange's face darkened. He seemed to hesitate upon the verge of vehement speech. But he restrained himself though the hot blood mounted to his temples.

"I have never yet broken my word to a woman," he said. "I am not going to begin now."

"Why not?" said Nick, with a grin that was somehow fiendish.

Grange ignored the gibe. "There is no reason why I should not marry her," he said.

"No reason!" Nick's eyes flashed upwards for an instant, and a curious sense of insecurity stabbed Grange.

Nevertheless he made unfaltering reply. "No reason whatever."

Nick sat up slowly and regarded him with minute attention. "Are you serious?" he asked finally.

"I am absolutely serious," Grange told him sternly. "And I warn you, Ratcliffe, this is not a subject upon which I will bear interference."

"Man alive!" jeered Nick. "You must think I'm damned easily scared."

He got up with the words, jerking his meagre body upright with a slight, fierce movement, and stood in front of Grange, arrogantly daring.

"Now just listen to this," he said. "I don't care a damn how you take it, so you may as well take it quietly. It's no concern of mine to know how you have whitewashed this thing over and made it look clean and decent--and honourable--to your fastidious eye. What I am concerned in is to prevent Muriel Roscoe making an unworthy marriage. And that I mean to do. I told you in the summer that she should be no man's second best, and, by Heaven, she never shall. I had my doubts of you then. I know you now. And--I swear by all things sacred that I will see you dead sooner than married to her."

He broke off for a moment as though to get a firmer grip upon himself. His face was terrible, his body tense as though controlled by tight-strung wires.

Before Grange could speak, he went on rapidly, with a resolution more deadly if less passionate than before.

"If either of you had ever cared, it might have been a different matter. But you never did. I knew that you never did. I never troubled to find out your reason for proposing to her. No doubt it was strictly honourable. But I always knew why she accepted you. Did you know that, I wonder?"

"Yes, I did." Grange's voice was deep and savage. He glowered down upon him in rising fury. "It was to escape you."

Nick's eyes flamed back like the eyes of a crouching beast. He uttered a sudden, dreadful laugh. "Yes--to escape me," he said, "to escape me! And it has fallen to me to deliver her from her chivalrous protector. If you look all round that, you may see something funny in it."

"Funny!" burst forth Grange, letting himself go at last. "It's what you have been playing for all along, you infernal mountebank! But you have overreached yourself this time. For that very reason I will never give her up."

He swung past Nick with the words, goaded past endurance, desperately aware that he could not trust himself within arm's length of that gibing, devilish countenance.

He reached the door and seized the handle, wrenched furiously for a few seconds, then flung violently round.

"Ratcliffe," he exclaimed, "for your own sake I advise you not to keep me here!"

But Nick had remained with his face to the fire. He did not so much as glance over his shoulder. He had suddenly grown intensely quiet. "I haven't quite done with you," he said. "There is just one thing more I have to say."

Grange was already striding back like an enraged bull, but something in the voice or attitude of the man who leaned against the mantelpiece without troubling to face him, brought him up short.

Against his will he halted. "Well?" he demanded.

"It's only this," said Nick. "You know as well as I do that I possess the means to prevent your marriage to Muriel Roscoe, and I shall certainly use that means unless you give her up of your own accord. You see what it would involve, don't you? The sacrifice of your precious honour--and not yours only."

He paused as if to allow full vent to Grange's anger, but still he did not change his position.

"You damned cur!" said Grange, his voice hoarse with concentrated passion.

Nick took up his tale as if he had not heard. "But, on the other hand, if you will write and set her free now, at once--I don't care how you do it; you can tell any likely lie that occurs to you--I on my part will swear to you that I will give her up entirely, that I will never plague her again, will never write to her or attempt in any way to influence her life, unless she on her own initiative makes it quite clear that she desires me to do so."

He ceased, and there fell a dead silence, broken only by the lashing rain upon the windows and the long, deep roar of the sea. He seemed to be listening to them with bent head, but in reality he heard nothing at all. He had made the final sacrifice for the sake of the woman he loved. To secure her happiness, her peace of mind, he had turned his face to the desert, at last, and into it he would go, empty, beaten, crippled, to return no more for ever.

Across the lengthening silence Grange's voice came to him. There was a certain hesitation in it as though he were not altogether sure of his ground.

"I am to take your word for all that?"

Nick turned swiftly round. "You can do as you choose. I have nothing else to offer you."

Grange abandoned the point abruptly, feeling as a man who has lost his footing in a steep place and is powerless to climb back. Perhaps even he was vaguely conscious of something colossal hidden away behind that baffling, wrinkled mask.

"Very well," he said, with that dogged dignity in which Englishmen clothe themselves in the face of defeat. "Then you will take my word to set her free."

"To-night?" said Nick.

"To-night."

There was another pause. Then Nick crossed to the door and unlocked it.

"I will take your word," he said.

A few seconds later, when Grange had gone, he softly shut and locked the door once more, and returned to his chair before the fire. Great gusts of rain were being flung against the window-panes. The wind howled near and far with a fury that seemed to set the walls vibrating. Now and then dense puffs of smoke blew out across the hearth into the room, and the atmosphere grew thick and stifling.

But Nick did not seem aware of these things. He sat on unheeding in the midst of his dust and ashes while the storm raged relentlessly above his head.

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