Ethel M. Dell.

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if - she - will like me as well if I get back my sight."

The doubt pressed cold at his heart. She had been so divinely kind to
him ever since the catastrophe. She had literally given herself up to
him, making his darkness light. And vaguely he knew that she had loved
the doing of it, had loved to know that he needed her. How would it be,
he asked himself, when he needed her thus no longer? Would she love him
as well in strength as in weakness? Would she be as near to him when he
no longer needed her to lead him by the hand?

He sprang to his feet with a gesture of fierce impatience. He flung the
doubt away. Her love was not fashioned of so slender a fabric as this.
What right had he to question it thus?

But yet, despite all self-reproach, the doubt remained, repudiate it as
he might. It went with him even into her loved presence, refusing to be
dislodged.

She came with her father to dine in accordance with Max's invitation.
The evening passed with absolute smoothness. Sir Kersley and Dr. Jim
were old friends, and had a good deal to say to one another. Max was
present at the table, but withdrew early, alleging that he had a serious
case to attend. Olga and Noel were left to themselves.

They retired to Sir Kersley's drawing-room and spent the rest of the
evening there. Olga was evidently tired, and Noel provided most of the
conversation. Noel was never silent for any length of time. He lay on
the sofa talking with cheery inconsequence, scarcely pausing for any
response, till presently he worked round to the subject of his
blindness - a subject which by tacit consent they seldom discussed.

"Max has had a look at me," he said. "He thinks they may be able to
switch the light on again. They will have to tighten up a few screws, or
something of the kind. He didn't let me into the whole ghastly process,
but gave me to understand it wouldn't be exactly a picnic. I don't know
how long it's going to take; some time, I fancy. You'll pay me a visit
now and then, won't you?"

It was then that Olga came very suddenly out of her silence, moved
impulsively to him, and knelt by his side, her hands on his.

"Noel!" she said.

He turned to her swiftly, gathering her hands up to his lips. "What,
darling?"

"Noel, - " she paused an instant, then with a rush came the words - "let
us be married very soon! Let us be married - before the operation!"

"My darling girl!" said Noel in astonishment.

"Yes," she said rapidly. "I mean it! I wish it! Dad knows that I wish
it. So does Nick. Nick is very good, you know. He - he is going to settle
some money on me on my twenty-first birthday. So that needn't be a
difficulty. We shall have enough to live upon."

"And you think I'm going to live on you?" said Noel, still with her
hands pressed hard against his cheek.

"No," she said. "No. You've got something, I expect. That - with
mine - would be enough."

"I've got what my good brother-in-law allows me - besides my pay," said
Noel. "I daresay - if the worst happened - he would make a settlement too.
But I can't count on that. Besides - the worst isn't going to happen. So
cheer up, darling! I shall go back to Badgers yet. Poor old boy! It was
decent of him to pay me the compliment of being so cut up, wasn't it? I
mustn't forget to send him a cable when the deed is done."

He was switching the conversation into more normal channels with airy
inconsequence, but Olga gently brought him back to the point.

"Won't you consider my suggestion?" she said.

He smiled then, his quick, boyish smile. "My darling, I have considered
it. I'm afraid it isn't practicable. But thank you a million times over
all the same!"

"Noel!" There was keen disappointment in her voice. "Why isn't it
practicable?"

He let her hands go, and reached out, drawing her to him. "Don't tempt
me, sweetheart!" he said softly. "I'm hound enough as it is to dream of
letting you join your life to mine under present conditions. But this
other is out of the question. I simply won't do it, dear, so don't ask
me!"

"But why not?" she pleaded very earnestly. "I have told you I wish it."

He smiled - a smile that was very tender and yet whimsical also. "So
like you, darling," he said. "But it can't be done. There are always
chances to be taken in a serious operation; but I don't mean to take
more than I can help. I'm not going to chance making you a widow almost
before you are a wife."

"Oh, but, Noel - " she protested.

"Yes, really, darling. It's my final word on the subject. We will be
married just as soon after the operation as can be decently managed. But
not before it, sweetheart. Any fellow who let you do that would be a cur
of the lowest degree."

He was holding her in his arms with the words. Her head was against his
shoulder. A man had entered the conservatory behind them from an
adjoining room, lounging in with his feet in carpet slippers that made
no sound.

"And suppose - " it was Olga's voice very low and quivering - "suppose the
operation doesn't succeed, - shall you - shall you refuse to marry me
then?"

"Not much," said Noel cheerily. "If I'm alive and kicking, I shall want
you all the more. No!" He caught himself up sharply. "I don't mean that!
I couldn't want you more. Ill or well, I should want you just the same.
I only meant - " his voice grew subtly softer, he spoke with great
tenderness, his lips moving against her forehead - "I only meant that
'the desert were a paradise, if thou wert there, if thou wert there.'"

She raised her head quickly. There were tears in her eyes. "Noel, how
strange that you should say that!"

"Say what, dear?"

"That old song," she said rather incoherently. "It - it has memories for
me - memories that hurt."

"What memories?" he asked.

But she could not tell him, and he passed the matter by.

The man in the conservatory drew back with his hands deep in his
pockets, and went back by the way he had come.




CHAPTER XXVI

A FOOL'S ERRAND


Dr. Jim's expectations, so far as Olga was concerned, were fulfilled.
When he went back to Weir, she remained in town with Nick and Muriel.
But he did not go back alone. Will, Daisy, and Peggy went with him.
Daisy's love for Dr. Jim was almost as great as her love for Nick, and
Will had spent his boyhood under his care.

There was a cottage close to the doctor's house which Daisy had tenanted
seven or eight years before when she had been obliged to come Home for
her health and Will had been left behind in India. Dr. Jim had managed
to secure this cottage a second time, and here they were soon installed
with all the joy of exiles in an English spring.

"But we are not going to forego the honeymoon," Will said on their first
evening, as he and Daisy stood together in the ivy-covered porch.

She laughed - that little laugh of hers half-gay, half-sad, that seemed
like a reminiscence of more mirthful days. "Isn't this romantic enough
for you?"

He slipped his arm about her waist. "I'm not altogether sure that I did
right to let you come here," he said.

"Oh, nonsense!" She leaned her head against him with a very loving
gesture. "I am not so morbid as that. I love to be here, and close to
dear old Jim. He hasn't altered a bit. He is just as rugged - and as
sweet - as ever."

Will laughed. "How you women, do love a masterful man!"

"Oh, not always," said Daisy. "There are certain forms of mastery in a
man which to my mind are quite intolerable. Max Wyndham for instance!"

"What! You've still got your knife into him? I'm sorry for the man
myself," said Will. "It must be - well, difficult, to say the least of
it, to see his brother come home in possession of his girl and to keep
smiling."

"He doesn't care!" said Daisy scathingly. "Geniuses haven't time to be
human."

"I wonder," said Will.

He knew, and had never ceased to regret, his wife's share in the
accomplishment of Max's discomfiture; and he fancied that secretly, her
antipathy notwithstanding, she had begun to regret it also.

He changed the subject, and they went on to talk of Noel.

"Olga tells me that they think of operating next Sunday," Daisy said.
"How anxious she will be, poor girl! I am thankful she has Nick and
Muriel to take care of her. It has been a terrible time for her all
through."

"Poor child!" said Will compassionately.

He shrewdly suspected that the time that lay ahead of Olga would be
harder to face than any she had yet experienced.

Olga herself had already begun to realize that. Noel's refusal to
consider her suggestion had surprised and disappointed her. She had not
anticipated his refusal, though she fully understood it and respected
him for it. But it made matters infinitely more difficult for her. She
longed for the time when Max's part should be done and he should have
passed finally out of her life. Not that he intruded upon her in any
way. He scarcely so much as glanced in her direction; but his very
presence was a perpetual trial to her. She had a feeling that the green
eyes were watching continually for some sign of weakness, even though
they never looked her way.

Nick was a great comfort to her in those days, but she felt that even he
did not wholly grasp the difficulties of the situation. He supported her
indeed, but he did not realize precisely where lay the strain. And it
was the same with Dr. Jim. He had accepted her engagement without demur
after a gruff enquiry as to whether she loved the fellow. But he had not
asked for any details, and had made no reference to her former
engagement. She supposed that he found out all he wanted to know on this
subject from Nick; and she was grateful for his forbearance, albeit,
after a woman's fashion, slightly hurt by it.

She had not, however, much time for reflection of any sort during those
first days in town. Noel occupied all her thoughts.

On the day before that fixed for the operation, he went into a private
nursing-home. He was extremely cheery over all the preparations, and
made himself exceedingly popular with his nurses before he had been more
than a few hours in the place.

Even Max was somewhat surprised by the boy's fund of high spirits, and
Sir Kersley openly expressed his admiration.

"You Wyndhams are a very remarkable family," he said to Max that night.

Max smiled sardonically in recognition of the compliment. "But the boy
has more backbone than I thought," he admitted. "I don't think he will
give us much trouble after all, thanks to Olga."

"Ah!" Sir Kersley said. "You think this is due to her?"

"In a great measure," said Max.

Sir Kersley's face was grave. "I am afraid the strain is telling upon
her," he said.

"You think she looks ill?" Max shot the question with none of his
customary composure.

"No, not actually ill," Sir Kersley said, without looking at him. "But
she is too thin in my opinion, and she looks to me very highly strung."

"She always was," said Max.

"Yes; well, she mustn't have a nervous break-down if we can prevent it,"
said Sir Kersley gently.

"No," Max agreed curtly. "She has got to keep up for Noel's sake."

That seemed to be his main idea just then - his brother's welfare. Very
resolutely he kept his mind fixed, with all the strength of which it was
capable, upon that one object, and he was impatient of every distraction
outside his profession.

Late that night he went round for a last look at Noel, and was told by a
smiling nurse that he had "gone to sleep as chirpy as a cricket." He
went in to see him, and found him slumbering like an infant. The pulse
under Max's fingers was absolutely normal, and an odd smile that had in
it an element of respect touched Max's grim lips. Certainly the boy had
grit.

The first sound he heard when he arrived at the home on the following
day was Noel's heartiest laugh. He was enjoying a joke with one of the
nurses who was Irish herself and extremely gay of heart. But the moment
Max entered, he sobered and asked for Olga.

Olga was in the building with Nick, but they had thought it advisable to
keep visitors away from him on the morning of the operation. Noel,
however, was absolutely immovable on the point, refusing flatly to
proceed until he had seen her. So for five short minutes Olga was
admitted and left alone with him.

More than once during those minutes his cheery laugh made itself heard
again. He had a hundred and one things to say, not one of which could
Olga ever remember afterwards save the last, when, holding her close to
him, he whispered, "And if I don't come out of it, sweetheart, you're
to marry another fellow; see? No damn' sentimental rot on my account,
mind! I never was good enough for you, God knows! There! Run along!
Good-bye!"

His kiss was the briefest he had ever given her, but there was something
in the manner of its bestowal that pierced her to the heart. Her own
farewell was inarticulate. She was only just able to restrain her tears.

But she mastered her weakness almost immediately, for Max was waiting in
the passage outside. He was talking to a nurse, and she would have
slipped past him without recognition; but he broke off abruptly and
joined her, walking back with her to the room where Nick was waiting.

"Look here!" he said, "I don't think you need be so anxious, I give you
my word I believe the operation will be a success."

It was so contrary to his custom to express an opinion in this way that
Olga raised her eyes almost involuntarily to gaze at him.

His eyes met and held them instantly. He looked at her with a species of
stern kindness that seemed to thrust away all painful memories.

"Even if it isn't a success," he said, "I won't let him die, I promise
you. Now, will you follow my advice for once?"

"Yes," she murmured, wondering at her own docility.

He smiled upon her with instant approval, and her heart gave a wild leap
that almost made her gasp. "That's wise of you," he said in that voice
of cool encouragement that she remembered so well - so well! "Then get
Nick to take you for a walk that'll last for an hour and a half. Go and
look at the frogs in the Serpentine! Awfully interesting things - frogs!
And have a glass of milk before you start! Good-bye!"

Strong and steady, his hand closed upon hers, gave it a slight
admonitory shake and set it free.

The next moment he had turned and was striding back along the corridor.
Olga stood and watched him out of sight, but he did not turn his head.

* * * * *

The search for frogs in the Serpentine was scarcely as engrossing a
pastime as Nick could have desired for the amusement of his charge on
that sunny April morning, but he did his valiant best to keep her
thoughts on the move. He compelled her to talk when she yearned to be
silent, and again in a vague, disjointed fashion Olga wondered at his
lack of penetration. Yet, since he was actually obtuse enough to
misunderstand her preoccupation and to be even mildly hurt thereby, she
exerted herself for his sake to respond intelligently to his remarks.
So, with cheery indifference on his part and aching suspense on hers,
they passed that dreadful interval of waiting.

On the return journey Olga's knees shook so much that they would
scarcely support her; and then it was that Nick seemed suddenly to awake
to the situation. He gave her a swift glance, and abruptly offered his
arm.

"There, kiddie, there!" he said softly. "Keep a stiff upper lip! It's
nearly over."

She accepted his help in silence, and in silence they pursued their way.
Nick looked at her no more, nor spoke. His lips were twitching a little,
but he showed no other sign of feeling.

So they came at last to the tall building behind its iron railings that
hid so many troubles from the world.

The door opened to them, and they went within.

Silence and a curious, clinging perfume met them as they entered.

Olga stood still. She was white to the lips. "Nick," she said, in a
voiceless whisper, "Nick, that is - the pain-killer!"

And then, very quietly from a room close by, Max came to them. He
glanced at Nick and nodded. There was an odd, exultant look in the green
eyes. He took Olga's hands very firmly into his own.

"It's all right," he said.

She stared at him, trying to make her white lips form a question.

"It's all right," he said again. "Well over. As satisfactory as it could
possibly be. Now don't be silly!" Surely it was the Max of old times
speaking! "Pull up while you can! Come in here and sit down for a
minute! I am going to take you to see him directly."

That last remark did more towards restoring Olga's self-control than any
of the preceding ones. She went with him submissively, making strenuous
efforts to preserve her composure. She even took without a murmur the
wineglass of _sal volatile_ with which he presented her.

Max stood beside her, still holding one of her hands, his fingers
grasping her wrist, and talked over her head to Nick.

"Absolutely normal in every way. Came round without the least trouble.
He'll be on his legs again in a fortnight. Of course we shan't turn him
loose for a month, and he will have to live in the dark. But he ought to
be absolutely sound in six weeks from now."

"And - he will see?" whispered Olga.

Max bent and laid her hand down. He looked at her closely for a moment.
"Yes," he said. "There is no reason why he shouldn't make a complete
recovery. Are you all right now? I promised to let him have a word with
you."

She stood up. "Yes, I am quite all right. Let us go!"

Her knees still felt weak, but she steadied them resolutely. They went
out side by side.

In silence Max piloted her. When they reached the darkened room he took
her hand again and led her forward. The cheerful Irish nurse was at the
bedside, but she drew away at their approach. And Olga found herself
standing above a swathed, motionless figure in hushed expectancy of she
knew not what.

The hand that held hers made as if to withdraw itself, but she clung to
it suddenly and convulsively, and it closed again.

"All right," said Max's leisurely tones. "He's a bit sleepy still.
Noel!" He bent, still holding her hand. "I've brought Olga, old chap, as
I promised. Say good-night to her, won't you?"

The voice was the voice of Max Wyndham, but its tenderness seemed to
rend her heart. She could have wept for the pain of it, but she knew she
must not weep.

The figure in the bed stirred, murmured an incoherent apology, seemed to
awake.

"Oh, is Olga there?" said Noel drowsily. "Take care of her, Max, old
boy! Make her as happy as you can! She's awfully - fond - of you - though
I'm not - supposed - to know."

The voice trailed off, sank into unconsciousness. Max's hand had
tightened to a hard grip. He straightened himself and spoke, coldly,
grimly.

"He isn't quite himself yet. I'm afraid I've brought you on a fool's
errand. You can kiss him if you like. He probably won't know."

But Olga could not. She turned from the bed with the gesture of one who
could bear no more, and without further words he led her from the room.




CHAPTER XXVII

LOVE MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE


"I've been prayin' for you, dear Noel," said Peggy importantly, with her
arms round her hero's neck.

"Have you, though?" said Noel. "I say, little pal, how decent of you!
How often?"

"Ever so many times," said Peggy. "Every mornin', every evenin', and
after grace besides."

"By Jove!" said Noel. "What did you say?"

"I said," Peggy swelled with triumph, "'Lighten Noel's darkness, we
beseech Thee, O Lord!'"

"Why, that's what I said!" ejaculated Noel.

"Did you?" cried Peggy excitedly. "Did you really? Oh, Noel, then that's
how it was, isn't it?"

"Quite so," said Noel.

He sat on the sofa in Daisy's little drawing-room with his small
playfellow on his knee. They had not seen each other for six weeks. And
in those weeks Noel had been transformed from a blind man to a man who
saw, albeit through thick blue spectacles that emphasized the pallor of
illness to such an alarming degree that Daisy had almost wept over him
at sight.

Peggy, more practical in her sympathy, had gathered him straightway to
her small but ardent bosom, and refused to let him go.

So they sat in the drawing-room tightly locked and related to each other
all the doings of their separation.

"I wonder you're not afraid of me in these hideous goggles," Noel said
once.

To which Peggy replied with indignation. "I'm not a baby!"

"And Olga has gone to Brethaven, has she?" he asked presently.

"Yes," said Peggy wisely. "Dr. Jim said she must have some sea air to
make her fat again. So Captain Nick came yesterday and took her away.
And d'you know," said Peggy, "I'm goin' there too very soon?"

"What ho!" said Noel. "Are they going to let you stay there all by
yourself?"

Peggy nodded. "Daddy and Mummy are goin' away all by theirselves, so I'm
goin' away all by myself."

"And who's going to slap you and put you to bed when you're naughty?"
Noel enquired rudely. "Nick?"

"No!" said Peggy, affronted, "Captain Nick's a gentleman!"

"Is he though? Nasty snub for Noel Wyndham Esquire!" observed Noel.
"Sorry, Peggy! Then unless Mrs. Nick rises nobly to the occasion, I'm
afraid you'll go unslapped. Dear, dear! What a misfortune! I shall have
to come down now and then and see what I can do."

Peggy embraced him again ecstatically at this suggestion. "Yes, dear
Noel, yes! Come often, won't you?"

"Rather!" said Noel cheerily. "I believe I'm going to be married some
time soon by the way," he added as an afterthought.

Peggy's face fell. "Oh, Noel, not really!"

"Why not really?" said Noel.

Peggy explained with a little quiver in her voice. "You did always say
that when I was growed up you'd marry me."

"Oh, is that all?" said Noel. "That's easily done. I'll get permission
to have two. Whom does one ask? The Pope, isn't it? I'll go and
cultivate his acquaintance on my honeymoon."

"What's a honeymoon?" said Peggy.

Noel burst into his merriest laugh and sprang to his feet. "It's the
nicest thing in the world. I'll tell you all about it when we're
married, Peg-top! Meantime, will you take me to see the great Dr. Jim? I
want to inveigle him into lending me his motor."

"Oh, are you goin' to Brethaven?" asked Peggy eagerly. "Take me! Do,
dear Noel!"

"What for?" said Noel.

"Reggie lives there," said Peggy. "And Reggie's got some rabbits - big,
white ones."

"But suppose they don't want you?" objected Noel.

"S'pose they don't want _you_?" countered Peggy, clinging ingratiatingly
to his hand. "Then - you can come and play with me and the rabbits - and
Reggie."

Noel stooped very suddenly and kissed her. "What an excellent idea,
Peg-top!" he said. "There's nothing more useful when the road is blocked
than to secure a good line of retreat."

Peggy looked up at him with puzzled eyes, but she did not ask him what
he meant.

* * * * *

It was on that same afternoon that Olga found herself wandering along
the tiny glen in the Redlands grounds that had been her favourite resort
in childhood. It was only two days since she had left town, urged
thereto by Dr. Jim who insisted that she had been there too long
already. Nick, moreover, who had patiently chaperoned her for the past
five weeks, was wanting to rejoin his wife who had returned to Redlands
soon after Noel's operation. And Noel himself, though still undergoing
treatment at his brother's hands, had so far recovered as to be able to
leave the home and take up his abode temporarily with Sir Kersley
Whitton and Max. He had cheerily promised to follow her in a day or two;
and Olga, persuaded on all sides, had yielded without much resistance
though not very willingly. She had a curious reluctance to return to her
home. Something - that hovering phantom that she had almost
forgotten - had arisen once more to menace her peace. And she was afraid;
she knew not wherefore.

She was happier in Noel's society than in any other. To see him daily
growing stronger was her one unalloyed pleasure, and, curiously, when
with him she was never so acutely conscious of that chill shadow. Of Max
she saw practically nothing. He was always busy, almost too busy to
notice her presence, it seemed - a fact that hurt her vaguely even while
it gave her relief.

There was another fact that imparted the same kind of miserable comfort,
and that was that Noel, though impetuous and loving as ever, never made
any but the most casual allusions to their marriage. She could only
conclude that he was waiting to make a complete recovery, and she would
not herself broach the subject a second time. She did not actually want



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