Noel wrung the hand. They looked each other in the eyes, and Noel spoke impulsively as his habit was, but with genuine feeling. “Good-bye, old chap! I hope you’ll get to the tip-top of the tree and stay there.” He added, seeing Max’s mouth go down, “But I know very well there’s a bigger thing than success in the world, and if I can ever help you to it—by God, old boy, I will!”
He said it hurriedly, expecting it to be received with irony. But there was no trace of cynicism left in Max’s face as he gave him a final grip, and turned away with the one word: “Thanks!”
When he had gone, Noel returned to the room with sober gait, and paused in the middle of it to pick up his sword.
“I wonder if he cares much,” he murmured half aloud.
He stood by the table with eyes absently fixed, going over in his mind the conversation that had just passed, recalling the leisurely, supercilious tones, the semi-ironical kindness with which his brother had revealed the situation. Why had he troubled himself to do so? For a space Noel wondered.
And then very suddenly the words, “You’ve got to worship her always,” flashed through his mind. Those words were the key to everything. He realized that fully. And again he was conscious of shame. Yes, Max did care. That was beyond all questioning. He cared enough to do what he—Noel—had wholly failed to do. His love was great enough to efface itself, a form of love—the rarest and the highest—of which he himself was as yet incapable. He could stand between the girl and death without a second’s hesitation; but he could not live and sacrifice his happiness to hers.
Again the hot blood mounted to his forehead and slowly sank again. And in those few moments Noel Wyndham stepped into manhood and faced his soul anew. If she loved him, he would marry her and give her all he had; withholding nothing. She should not be a loser because she had loved him better than Max.
He would give her a love as strong and as worthy. He would make her happiness his aim and his goal, his watch-word and his prize. No sacrifice should ever be too great for her. He would offer all he had.
No; never should she come to repent her preference—to regret the love she had refused. She had chosen him—the lesser before the greater; and she should not find him wanting. She should not be disappointed in him. Never, never now should his love fail her!
Impulsive as always, he lifted his sword and kissed the hilt with reverence. “So help me, God!” he swore.
A FIGHT WITHOUT A FINISH
It was not the same Olga who went back into the busy little Anglo-Indian community at Sharapura after the breaking of her engagement, though it was only those intimate with her who marked the change. To the rest of the world she was as she had ever been, quiet and gentle, perhaps a little colourless, possibly in the eyes of some even insignificant, —“too reserved to be interesting,” according to Colonel Bradlaw who liked a woman to have plenty of vivacity and mirth in her composition.