The Keeper of the Door - Ethel M. Dell - ebook

The Keeper of the Door ebook

Ethel M. Dell

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Opis

Sequel to „The Way of an Eagle”. Max Wyndham is a successful doctor who comes to practice at the English Country. Olga Ratcliffe is Dr. Ratcliffe’s daughter and Max’s employer. Max realizes his attraction to Olga and predicts his marriage to her within a year. Olga finds him repulsive and is constantly in fear of him. Max’s reputation is endangered with his constant clashes with Olga. A page turning psychological thriller with doctors, beautiful women, and murders. The plot takes an adventurous dive from rural England to the wild jungles and shahs of India. With tiger hunting and national unrest, this book surpasses expectations. „The Keeper of the Door” is the compelling tale of woman’s struggles with social dictates and the ever-confusing demands of the heart by the author of „The Obstacle Race” and „The Bars of Iron”.

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Liczba stron: 828

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Contents

PART I

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

PART II

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER I

THE LESSON

“Then he’s such a prig!” said Olga.

“You should never use a word you can’t define,” observed Nick, from the depths of the hammock in which his meagre person reposed at length.

She made a face at him, and gave the hammock a vicious twitch which caused him to rock with some violence for several seconds. As he was wont pathetically to remark, everyone bullied him because he was small and possessed only one arm, having shed the other by inadvertence somewhere on the borders of the Indian Empire.

Certainly Olga–his half-brother’s eldest child–treated him with scant respect, though she never allowed anyone else to be other than polite to him in her hearing. But then she and Nick had been pals from the beginning of things, and this surely entitled her to a certain licence in her dealings with him. Nick, too, was such a darling; he never minded anything.

Having duly punished him for snubbing her, she returned with serenity to the work upon her lap.

“You see,” she remarked thoughtfully, “the worst of it is he really is a bit of a genius. And one can’t sit on genius–with comfort. It sort of flames out where you least expect it.”

“Highly unpleasant, I should think,” agreed Nick.

“Yes; and he has such a disgusting fashion of behaving as if–as if one were miles beneath his notice,” proceeded Olga. “And I’m not a chicken, you know, Nick, I’m twenty.”

“A vast age!” said Nick.

For which remark she gave him another jerk which set him swinging like a pendulum.

“Well, I’ve got a little sense anyhow,” she remarked.

“But not much,” said Nick. “Or you would know that that sort of treatment after muffins for tea is calculated to produce indigestion in a very acute form, peculiarly distressing to the beholder.”

“Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot the muffins.” Olga laid a restraining hand upon the hammock. “But do you like him, Nick? Honestly now!”

“My dear child, I never like anyone till I’ve seen him at his worst. Drawing-room manners never attract me.”

“But this man hasn’t got any manners at all,” objected Olga. “And he’s so horribly satirical. It’s like having a stinging-nettle in the house. I believe–just because he’s clever in his own line–that he’s been spoilt. As if everybody couldn’t do something!”

“Ah! That’s the point,” said Nick sententiously. “Everybody can, but it isn’t everybody who does. Now this young man apparently knows how to make the most of his opportunities. He plays a rattling hand at bridge, by the way.”

“I wonder if he cheats,” said Olga. “I’m sure he’s quite unscrupulous.”

Nick turned his head, and surveyed her from under his restless eyelids. “I begin to think you must be falling in love with the young man,” he observed.

“Don’t be absurd, Nick!” Olga did not even trouble to look up. She was stitching with neat rapidity.

“I’m not. That’s just how my wife fell in love with me. I assure you it often begins that way.” Nick shook his head wisely. “I should take steps to be nice to him if I were you, before the mischief spreads.”

Olga tossed her head. She was slightly flushed. “I shall never make a fool of myself over any man, Nick,” she said. “I’m quite determined on that point.”

“Dear, dear!” said Nick. “How old did you say you were?”

“I am woman enough to know my own mind,” said Olga.

“Heaven forbid!” said Nick. “You wouldn’t be a woman at all if you did that.”

“I don’t think you are a good judge on that subject, Nick,” remarked his niece judiciously. “In fact, even Dr. Wyndham knows better than that. I assure you the antipathy is quite mutual. He regards everyone who isn’t desperately ill as superfluous and uninteresting. He was absolutely disappointed the other day because, when I slipped on the stairs, I didn’t break any bones.”

“What a fiend!” said Nick.

“And yet Dad likes him,” said Olga. “I can’t understand it. The poor people like him too in a way. Isn’t it odd? They seem to have such faith in him.”

“I believe Jim has faith in him,” remarked Nick. “He wouldn’t turn him loose on his patients if he hadn’t.”

“Of course, Sir Kersley Whitton recommended him,” conceded Olga. “And he is an absolutely wonderful man, Dad says. He calls him the greatest medicine-man in England. He took up Max Wyndham years ago, when he was only a medical student. And he has been like a father to him ever since. In fact, I don’t believe Dr. Wyndham would ever have come here if Sir Kersley hadn’t made him. He was overworked and wouldn’t take a rest, so Sir Kersley literally forced him to come and be Dad’s assistant for a while. He told Dad that he was too brilliant a man to stay long in the country, and Dad gathered that he contemplated making him his own partner in the course of time. The sooner the better, I should say. He obviously thinks himself quite thrown away on the likes of us.”

“Altogether he seems to be a very interesting young man,” said Nick. “I must really cultivate his acquaintance. Is he going to be present to-night?”

“Oh, I suppose so. It’s a great drawback having him living in the house. You see, being his hostess, I have to be more or less civil to him. It’s very horrid,” said Olga, upon whom, in consequence of her mother’s death three years before, the duties of housekeeper had devolved. “And Dad is so fearfully strict too. He won’t let me be the least little bit rude, though he is often quite rude himself. You know Dad.”

“I know him,” said Nick. “He’s licked me many a time, bless his heart, and richly I deserved it. Help me to get out of this like a good kid! I see James the Second and the twins awaiting me on the tennis-court. I promised them a sett after tea.”

He rolled on to his feet with careless agility, his one arm encircling his young niece’s shoulders.

“I shouldn’t worry if I were you,” protested Olga. “It’s much too hot. Don’t waste your energies amusing the children! They can quite well play about by themselves.”

“And get up to mischief,” said Nick. “No, I’m on the job, overlooking the whole crowd of you, and I’ll do it thoroughly. When old Jim comes home he’ll find a model household awaiting him. By the way, I had a letter from him this afternoon. The kiddie is stronger already, and Muriel as happy as a queen. I shall hear from her to-morrow.”

“Don’t you wish you were with them?” questioned Olga. “It would be much more fun than staying here to chaperone me.”

Nick looked quizzical. “Oh, there’s plenty of fun to be had out of that too,” he assured her. “I take a lively interest in you, my child; always have.”

“You’re a darling,” said Olga, raising her face impulsively. “I shall write and tell Dad what care you are taking of us all.”

She kissed him warmly and let him go, smiling at the tuneless humming that accompanied his departure. Who at a casual glance would have taken Nick Ratcliffe for one of the keenest politicians of his party, a man whom friend and foe alike regarded as too brilliant to be ignored? He had even been jestingly described as “that doughty champion of the British Empire”–an epithet that Olga cherished jealously because it had not been bestowed wholly in jest.

His general appearance was certainly the reverse of imposing, and in this particular, to her intense gratification, Olga resembled him. She had the same quick, pale eyes, with the shrewdness of observation that never needed to look twice, the same colourless brows and lashes and insignificant features; but she possessed one redeeming point which Nick lacked. What with him was an impish grin of sheer exuberance, with her was a smile of rare enchantment, very fleeting, with a fascination quite indescribable but none the less capable of imparting to her pale young face a charm that only the greatest artists have ever been able to depict. People were apt to say of Olga Ratcliffe that she had a face that lighted up well. Her ready intelligence was ardent enough to illuminate her. No one was ever dull in her society. Certainly in her temperament at least there was nothing colorless. Where she loved she loved intensely, and she hated in the same way, quite thoroughly and without dissimulation.

Maxwell Wyndham, for instance, the subject of her recent conversation with Nick, she had disliked wholeheartedly from the commencement of their acquaintance, and he was perfectly aware of the fact. He could not well have been otherwise, but he was by no means disconcerted thereby. It even seemed as if he took a malicious pleasure in developing her dislike upon every opportunity that presented itself, and since he was living in the house as her father’s assistant, opportunities were by no means infrequent.

But there was no open hostility between them. Under Dr. Ratcliffe’s eye, his daughter was always frigidly polite to the unwelcome outsider, and the outsider accepted her courtesy with a sarcastic smile, knowing exactly how much it was worth.

Perhaps he was a little curious to know how she meant to treat him during her father’s absence, or it may have been sheer chance that actuated him on that sultry evening in August, but Nick and his three playfellows had only just settled down to a serious sett when the doctor’s assistant emerged from the house with his hands deep in his pockets and a peculiarly evil-smelling cigarette between his firm lips, and strolled across to the shady corner under the walnut-trees where the doctor’s daughter was sitting.

She was stitching so busily that she did not observe his approach until escape was out of the question; but she would not have retreated in any case. It was characteristic of her to display a bold front to the people she disliked.

She threw him one of her quick glances as he reached her, and noted with distaste the extreme fieriness of his red hair in the light of the sinking sun. His hair had always been an offence to her. It was so obtrusive. But she could have borne with that alone. It was the green eyes that mocked at everything from under shaggy red brows that had originally given rise to her very decided antipathy, and these Olga found it impossible to condone. People had no right to mock, whatever the colour of their eyes.

He joined her as though wholly unaware of her glance of disparagement.

“I fear I am spoiling a charming picture,” he observed as he did so. “But since there was none but myself to admire it, I felt at liberty to do so.”

Again momentarily Olga’s eyes flashed upwards, comprehending the whole of his thick-set figure in a single sweep of the eyelids. He was exceedingly British in build, possessing in breadth what he lacked in height. There was a bull-dog strength about his neck and shoulders that imparted something of a fighting look to his general demeanour. He bore himself with astounding self-assurance.

“Have you had any tea?” Olga inquired somewhat curtly. She was inwardly wondering what he had come for. He usually had a very definite reason for all he did.

“Many thanks,” he replied, balancing himself on the edge of the hammock. “I am deeply touched by your solicitude for my welfare. I partook of tea at the Campions’ half an hour ago.”

“At the Campions’!” There was quick surprise in Olga’s voice.

It elicited no explanation however. He sat and swayed in the hammock as though he had not noticed it.

After a moment she turned and looked at him fully. The green eyes were instantly upon her, alert and critical, holding that gleam of satirical humour that she invariably found so exasperating.

“Well?” said Olga at last.

“Well, fair lady?” he responded, with bland serenity.

She frowned. He was the only person in her world who ever made her take the trouble to explain herself, and he did it upon every possible occasion, with unvarying regularity. She hated him for it very thoroughly, but she always had to yield.

“Why did you go to the Campions’?” she asked, barely restraining her irritation.

“That, fair lady,” he coolly responded, “is a question which with regret I must decline to answer.”

Olga flushed. “How absurd!” she said quickly. “Dad would tell me like a shot.”

“I am not Dad,” said the doctor’s assistant, with unruffled urbanity. “Moreover, fair lady–”

“I prefer to be called by my name if you have no objection, Dr. Wyndham,” cut in Olga, with rising wrath.

He smiled at something over her head. “Thank you, Olga. It saves trouble certainly. Would you like to call me by mine? Max is what I generally answer to.”

Olga turned a vivid scarlet. “I am Miss Ratcliffe to you,” she said.

He accepted the rebuff with unimpaired equanimity. “I thought it must be too good to be true. Pardon my presumption! When you are as old as I am you will realize how little it really matters. You are genuinely angry, I suppose? Not pretending?”

Olga bit her lip in silence and returned to her work, conscious of unsteady fingers, conscious also of a scrutiny that marked and derided the fact.

“Yes,” he said, after a moment, “I should think your pulse must be about a hundred. Leave off working for a minute and let it steady down!”

Olga stitched on in spite of growing discomfiture. The shakiness was increasing very perceptibly. She could feel herself becoming hotter every moment. It was maddening to feel those ironical eyes noting and ridiculing her agitation. From exasperation she had passed to something very nearly resembling fury.

“Leave off!” he said again; and then, because she would not, he laid a detaining hand upon her work.

Instantly and fiercely her needle stabbed downwards. It was done in a moment, almost before she realized the nature of the impulse that possessed her. Straight into the back of his hand the weapon drove, and there from the sheer force of the impact broke off short.

Olga exclaimed in horror, but Max Wyndham made no sound of any sort. The cigarette remained between his lips, and not a muscle of his face moved. His hand with the broken needle in it was not withdrawn. It clenched slowly, that was all.

The blood welled up under Olga’s dismayed eyes, and began to trickle over the brown fist. She threw a frightened glance into his grim face. Her anger had wholly evaporated and she was keenly remorseful. But it was no matter for an apology. The thing was beyond words.

“And now,” said Max Wyndham, coolly removing the ash from his cigarette, “perhaps you will come to the surgery with me and get it out.”

“I?” stammered Olga, turning very white.

“Even so, fair lady. It will be a little lesson for you–in surgery. I hope the sight of blood doesn’t make you feel green,” said Max, with a one-sided twitch of the lips that was scarcely a smile.

He removed his hand to her relief, and stood up. Olga stood up too, but she was trembling all over.

“Oh, I can’t! Indeed, I can’t! Dr. Wyndham, please!” She glanced round desperately. “There’s Nick! Couldn’t you ask him?”

“Unfortunately this is a job that requires two hands,” said Max. “Besides, you did the mischief, remember.”

Olga gasped and said no more. Meekly she laid her work on the chair by the hammock and accompanied him to the house. It was the most painful predicament she had ever been in. She knew that there was no escape for her, knew, moreover, that she richly deserved her punishment; yet, as he held open the surgery-door for her, she made one more appeal.

“I’m sure I can’t do it. I shall do more harm than good, and hurt you horribly.”

“Oh, but you’ll enjoy that,” he said.

“Indeed, I shan’t!” Olga was almost in tears by this time. “Couldn’t you do it yourself with–with a forceps?”

“Afraid not,” said Max.

He went to a cupboard and took out a bottle containing something which he measured into a glass and filled up with water.

“Fortify yourself with this,” he said, handing it to her, “while I select the instruments of torture.”

Olga shuddered visibly. “I don’t want it. I only want to go.”

“Well, you can’t go,” he returned, “until you have extracted that bit of needle of yours. So drink that, and be sensible!”

He pulled out a drawer with the words, and she watched him, fascinated, as he made his selection. He glanced up after a moment.

“Olga, if you don’t swallow that stuff soon, I shall be–annoyed with you.”

She raised it at once to her lips, feeling as if she had no choice, and drank with shuddering distaste.

“I always have hated sal volatile,” she said, as she finished the draught.

“You can’t have everything you like in this world,” returned Max sententiously. “Come over here by the window! Now you are to do exactly what I tell you. Understand? Put your own judgment in abeyance. Yes, I know it’s bleeding; but you needn’t shudder like that. Give me your hand!” She gave it, trembling. He held it firmly, looking straight into her quivering face. “We won’t proceed,” he said, “until you have quite recovered your self-control, or you may go and slit a large vein, which would be awkward for us both. Just stand still and pull yourself together.”

She found herself obliged to obey. The shrewd green eyes watched her mercilessly, and under their unswerving regard her agitation gradually died down.

“That’s better,” he said at length, and released her hand. “Now see what you can do.”

It seemed to Olga later that he took so keen an interest in the operation as to be quite insensible of the pain it involved. She obeyed his instructions herself with a set face and a quaking heart, suppressing a sick shudder from time to time, finally achieving the desired end with a face so ghastly that the victim of her efforts laughed outright.

“Whom are you most sorry for, yourself or me?” he wanted to know. “I say, please don’t faint till you have bandaged me up! I can’t attend to you properly if you do, and I shall probably spill blood over you and make a beastly mess.”

Again his insistence carried the day. Olga bandaged the torn hand without a murmur.

“And now,” said Dr. Max Wyndham, “tell me what you did it for!”

She looked at him then with quick defiance. She had endured much in silence, mainly because she had known that she had deserved it; but there was a limit. She was not going to be brought to book as though she had been a naughty child.

“You had yourself alone to thank for it,” she declared with indignation. “If–if you hadn’t interfered and behaved intolerably, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“What a naïve way of expressing it!” said Max. “Shall I tell you how I regard the ‘happening’?”

“You can do as you like,” she flung back. She was longing to go, but stood her ground lest departure should look like flight.

Max took out and lighted another cigarette before he spoke again. Then: “I regard it,” he said very deliberately, “as a piece of spiteful mischief for which you deserve a sound whipping–which it would give me immense pleasure to administer.”

Olga’s pale face flamed scarlet. Her eyes flashed up to his in fiery disdain.

“You!” she said, with withering scorn. “You!”

“Well, what about me?”

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