The Way of an Eagle - Ethel M. Dell - ebook

The Way of an Eagle ebook

Ethel M. Dell

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Opis

The Way of an Eagle” novel (1919) opens in India, as scapegrace Nick Ratcliffe rescues Muriel, the general’s daughter, from dire peril. Between starvation and attack, death is almost certain. Nick is small, odd-looking, and unpredictable. But he has somehow won the general’s unconditional confidence. Not so with Muriel. Repelled yet fascinated by his mockery and ferocity – his way of an eagle – she agrees to a betrothal, then breaks it off for clean-cut Blake Grange. Back in England, Muriel gradually learns the truth of her feelings and of Blake’s. But when she returns to India Nick, now maimed in his country’s service, is nowhere to be seen until new peril strikes. True love prevails. This is an old-fashioned adventure/romance and it’s impossible to put down.

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Liczba stron: 521

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Contents

PART I

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

PART II

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

PART III

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 XXXI

PART IV

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER XXXIV

CHAPTER XXXV

CHAPTER XXXVI

CHAPTER XXXVII

CHAPTER XXXVIII

CHAPTER XXXIX

CHAPTER XL

CHAPTER XLI

CHAPTER XLII

CHAPTER XLIII

CHAPTER XLIV

PART V

CHAPTER XLV

CHAPTER XLVI

CHAPTER XLVII

CHAPTER XLVIII

CHAPTER XLIX

CHAPTER L

CHAPTER LI

CHAPTER LII

CHAPTER LIII

CHAPTER LIV

CHAPTER LV

CHAPTER LVI

PART I

CHAPTER I

THE TRUST

The long clatter of an irregular volley of musketry rattled warningly from the naked mountain ridges; over a great grey shoulder of rock the sun sank in a splendid opal glow; from very near at hand came the clatter of tin cups and the sound of a subdued British laugh. And in the room of the Brigadier-General a man lifted his head from his hands and stared upwards with unseeing, fixed eyes.

There was an impotent, crushed look about him as of one nearing the end of his strength. The lips under the heavy grey moustache moved a little as though they formed soundless words. He drew his breath once or twice sharply through his teeth. Finally, with a curious groping movement he reached out and struck a small hand-gong on the table in front of him.

The door slid open instantly and an Indian soldier stood in the opening. The Brigadier stared full at him for several seconds as if he saw nothing, his lips still moving secretly, silently. Then suddenly, with a stiff gesture, he spoke.

“Ask the major sahib and the two captain sahibs to come to me here.”

The Indian saluted and vanished like a swift-moving shadow.

The Brigadier sank back into his chair, his head drooped forward, his hands clenched. There was tragedy, hopeless and absolute, in every line of him.

There came the careless clatter of spurred heels and loosely-slung swords in the passage outside of the half-closed door, the sound of a stumble, a short ejaculation, and again a smothered laugh.

“Confound you Grange! Why can’t you keep your feet to yourself, you ungainly Triton, and give us poor minnows a chance?”

The Brigadier sat upright with a jerk. It was growing rapidly dark.

“Come in, all of you,” he said. “I have something to say. As well to shut the door, Ratcliffe, though it is not a council of war.”

“There being nothing left to discuss, sir,” returned the voice that had laughed. “It is just a simple case of sitting tight now till Bassett comes round the corner.”

The Brigadier glanced up at the speaker and caught the last glow of the fading sunset reflected on his face. It was a clean-shaven face that should have possessed a fair skin, but by reason of unfavourable circumstances it was burnt to a deep yellow-brown. The features were pinched and wrinkled–they might have belonged to a very old man; but the eyes that smiled down into the Brigadier’s were shrewd, bright, monkey-like. They expressed a cheeriness almost grotesque. The two men whom he had followed into the room stood silent among the shadows. The gloom was such as could be felt.

Suddenly, in short, painful tones the Brigadier began to speak.

“Sit down,” he said. “I have sent for you to ask one among you to undertake for me a certain service which must be accomplished, but which I–“ he paused and again audibly caught his breath between his teeth–“which I–am unable to execute for myself.”

An instant’s silence followed the halting speech. Then the young officer who stood against the door stepped briskly forward.

“What’s the job, sir? I’ll wager my evening skilly I carry it through.”

One of the men in the shadows moved, and spoke in a repressive tone. “Shut up, Nick! This is no mess-room joke.”

Nick made a sharp, half-contemptuous gesture. “A joke only ceases to be a joke when there is no one left to laugh, sir,” he said. “We haven’t come to that at present.”

He stood in front of the Brigadier for a moment–an insignificant figure but for the perpetual suggestion of simmering activity that pervaded him; then stepped behind the commanding officer’s chair, and there took up his stand without further words.

The Brigadier paid no attention to him. His mind was fixed upon one subject only. Moreover, no one ever took Nick Ratcliffe seriously. It seemed a moral impossibility.

“It is quite plain to me,” he said heavily at length, “that the time has come to face the situation. I do not speak for the discouragement of you brave fellows. I know that I can rely upon each one of you to do your duty to the utmost. But we are bound to look at things as they are, and so prepare for the inevitable. I for one am firmly convinced that General Bassett cannot possibly reach us in time.”

He paused, but no one spoke. The man behind him was leaning forward, listening intently.

He went on with an effort. “We are a mere handful. We have dwindled to four white men among a host of dark. Relief is not even within a remote distance of us, and we are already bordering upon starvation. We may hold out for three days more. And then”–his breath came suddenly short, but he forced himself to continue–“I have to think of my child. She will be in your hands. I know you will all defend her to the last ounce of your strength; but which of you”–a terrible gasping checked his utterance for many labouring seconds; he put his hand over his eyes–“which of you,” he whispered at last, his words barely audible, “will have the strength to–shoot her before your own last moment comes?”

The question quivered through the quiet room as if wrung from the twitching lips by sheer torture. It went out in silence–a dreadful, lasting silence in which the souls of men, stripped naked of human convention, stood confronting the first primaeval instinct of human chivalry.

It continued through many terrible seconds–that silence, and through it no one moved, no one seemed to breathe. It was as if a spell had been cast upon the handful of Englishmen gathered there in the deepening darkness.

The Brigadier sat bowed and motionless at the table, his head sunk in his hands.

Suddenly there was a quiet movement behind him, and the spell was broken. Ratcliffe stepped deliberately forward and spoke.

“General,” he said quietly, “if you will put your daughter in my care, I swear to you, so help me God, that no harm of any sort shall touch her.”

There was no hint of emotion in his voice, albeit the words were strong; but it had a curious effect upon those who heard it. The Brigadier raised his head sharply, and peered at him; and the other two officers started as men suddenly stumbling at an unexpected obstacle in a familiar road.

One of them, Major Marshall, spoke, briefly and irritably, with a touch of contempt. His nerves were on edge in that atmosphere of despair.

“You, Nick!” he said. “You are about the least reliable man in the garrison. You can’t be trusted to take even reasonable care of yourself. Heaven only knows how it is you weren’t killed long ago. It was thanks to no discretion on your part. You don’t know the meaning of the word.”

Nick did not answer, did not so much as seem to hear. He was standing before the Brigadier. His eyes gleamed in his alert face–two weird pin-points of light.

“She will be safe with me,” he said, in a tone that held not the smallest shade of uncertainty.

But the Brigadier did not speak. He still searched young Ratcliffe’s face as a man who views through field-glasses a region distant and unexplored.

After a moment the officer who had remained silent throughout came forward a step and spoke. He was a magnificent man with the physique of a Hercules. He had remained on his feet, impassive but observant, from the moment of his entrance. His voice had that soft quality peculiar to some big men.

“I am ready to sell my life for Miss Roscoe’s safety, sir,” he said.

Nick Ratcliffe jerked his shoulders expressively, but said nothing. He was waiting for the General to speak. As the latter rose slowly, with evident effort, from his chair, he thrust out a hand, as if almost instinctively offering help to one in sore need.

General Roscoe grasped it and spoke at last. He had regained his self-command. “Let me understand you, Ratcliffe,” he said. “You suggest that I should place my daughter in your charge. But I must know first how far you are prepared to go to ensure her safety.”

He was answered instantly, with an unflinching promptitude he had scarcely expected.

“I am prepared to go to the uttermost limit, sir,” said Nicholas Ratcliffe, his fingers closing like springs upon the hand that gripped his, “if there is a limit. That is to say, I am ready to go through hell for her. I am a straight shot, a cool shot, a dead shot. Will you trust me?”

His voice throbbed with sudden feeling. General Roscoe was watching him closely. “Can I trust you, Nick?” he said.

There was an instant’s silence, and the two men in the background were aware that something passed between them–a look or a rapid sign–which they did not witness. Then reckless and debonair came Nick’s voice.

“I don’t know, sir. But if I am untrustworthy, may I die to-night!”

General Roscoe laid his free hand upon the young man’s shoulder.

“Is it so, Nick?” he said, and uttered a heavy sigh. “Well–so be it then. I trust you.”

“That settles it, sir,” said Nick cheerily. “The job is mine.”

He turned round with a certain arrogance of bearing, and walked to the door. But there he stopped, looking back through the darkness at the dim figures he had left.

“Perhaps you will tell Miss Roscoe that you have appointed me deputy-governor,” he said. “And tell her not to be frightened, sir. Say I’m not such a bogey as I look, and that she will be perfectly safe with me.” His tone was half-serious, half-jocular. He wrenched open the door not waiting for a reply.

“I must go back to the guns,” he said, and the next moment was gone, striding carelessly down the passage, and whistling a music-hall ballad as he went.

CHAPTER II

A SOLDIER’S DAUGHTER

In the centre of the little frontier fort there was a room which one and all of its defenders regarded as sacred. It was an insignificant chamber, narrow as a prison cell and almost as bare; but it was the safest place in the fort. In it General Roscoe’s daughter–the only white woman in the garrison–had dwelt safely since the beginning of that dreadful siege.

Strictly forbidden by her father to stir from her refuge without his express permission, she had dragged out the long days in close captivity, living in the midst of nerve-shattering tumult but taking no part therein. She was little more than a child, and accustomed to render implicit obedience to the father she idolised, or she had scarcely been persuaded to submit to this rigorous seclusion. It would perhaps have been better for her physically and even mentally to have gone out and seen the horrors which were being daily enacted all around her. She had at first pleaded for at least a limited freedom, urging that she might take her part in caring for the wounded. But her father had refused this request with such decision that she had never repeated it. And so she had seen nothing while hearing much, lying through many sleepless nights with nerves strung to a pitch of torture far more terrible than any bodily exhaustion, and vivid imagination ever at work upon pictures more ghastly than even the ghastly reality which she was not allowed to see.

The strain was such as no human frame could have endured for long. Her strength was beginning to break down under it. The long sleepless nights were more than she could bear. And there came a time when Muriel Roscoe, driven to extremity, sought relief in a remedy from which in her normal senses she would have turned in disgust.

It helped her, but it left its mark upon her–a mark which her father must have noted, had he not been almost wholly occupied with the burden that weighed him down. Morning and evening he visited her, yet failed to read that in her haunted eyes which could not have escaped a clearer vision.

Entering her room two hours after his interview with his officers regarding her, he looked at her searchingly indeed, but without understanding. She lay among cushions on a charpoy of bamboo in the light of a shaded lamp. Young and slight and angular, with a pale little face of utter weariness, with great dark eyes that gazed heavily out of the black shadows that ringed them round, such was Muriel Roscoe. Her black hair was simply plaited and gathered up at the neck. It lay in cloudy masses about her temples–wonderful hair, quite lustreless, so abundant that it seemed almost too much for the little head that bore it. She did not rise at her father’s entrance. She scarcely raised her eyes.

“So glad you’ve come, Daddy,” she said, in a soft, low voice. “I’ve been wanting you. It’s nearly bedtime, isn’t it?”

He went to her, treading lightly. His thoughts had been all of her for the past few hours and in consequence he looked at her more critically than usual. For the first time he was struck by her pallor, her look of deathly weariness. On the table near her lay a plate of boiled rice piled high in a snowy pyramid. He saw that it had not been touched.

“Why, child,” he said, a sudden new anxiety at his heart “you have had nothing to eat. You’re not ill?”

She roused herself a little, and a very faint colour crept into her white cheeks. “No, dear, only tired–too tired to be hungry,” she told him. “That rice is for you.”

He sat down beside her with a sound that was almost a groan. “You must eat something, child,” he said. “Being penned up here takes away your appetite. But all the same you must eat.”

She sat up slowly, and pushed back the heavy hair from her forehead with a sigh.

“Very well, Daddy,” she said submissively. “But you must have some too, dear. I couldn’t possible eat it all.”

Something in his attitude or expression seemed to strike her at this point, and she made a determined effort to shake off her lethargy. A spoon and fork lay by the plate. She handed him the former and kept the latter for herself.

“We’ll have a picnic, Daddy.” she said, with a wistful little smile. “I told ayah always to bring two plates, but she has forgotten. We don’t mind, though, do we?”

It was childishly spoken, but the pathos of it went straight to the man’s heart. He tasted the rice under her watching eyes and pronounced it very good; then waited for her to follow his example which she did with a slight shudder.

“Delicious, Daddy, isn’t it?” she said. And even he did not guess what courage underlay the words.

They kept up the farce till the pyramid was somewhat reduced; then by mutual consent they suffered their ardour to flag. There was a faint colour in the girl’s thin face as she leaned back again. Her eyes were brighter, the lids drooped less.

“I had a dream last night, Daddy,” she said, “such a curious dream, and so vivid. I thought I was out on the mountains with some one. I don’t know who it was, but it was some one very nice. It seemed to be very near the sunrise, for it was quite bright up above, though it was almost dark where we stood. And, do you know–don’t laugh, Daddy, I know it was only a silly dream–when I looked up, I saw that everywhere the mountains were full of horses and chariots of fire. I felt so safe, Daddy, and so happy. I could have cried when I woke up.”

She paused. It was rather difficult for her to make conversation for the silent man who sat beside her so gloomy and preoccupied. Save that she loved her father as she loved no one else on earth, she might have felt awed in his presence.

As it was, receiving no response, she turned to look, and the next instant was on her knees beside him, her thin young arms clinging to his neck.

“Daddy, darling, darling!” she whispered, and hid her face against him in sudden, nameless terror.

He clasped her to him, holding her close, that she might not again see his face and the look it wore. She began to tremble, and he tried to soothe her with his hand, but for many seconds he could find no words.

“What is it, Daddy?” she whispered at last, unable to endure the silence longer. “Won’t you tell me? I can be very brave. You said so yourself.”

“Yes,” he said. “You will be a brave girl, I know.” His voice quivered and he paused to steady it. “Muriel,” he said then, “I don’t know if you have ever thought of the end of all this. There will be an end, you know. I have had to face it to-night.”

She looked up at him quickly, but he was ready for her. He had banished from his face the awful despair that he carried in his soul.

“When Sir Reginald Bassett comes–“ she began uncertainly.

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