But for the present her power of resistance was dead. Max must be protected, and this was the only way. She did not dare to think of him in those days, save as it were in the abstract. He filled a certain chamber in her heart which she never entered. He had gone out of her life more completely than if he had died, for she cherished no tender memory of him. She turned away from the bare thought of him, and in the naked horrors of the night, when she lay cold and staring while the hours crawled by, she deliberately banished him from her mind. She was going to do this thing for his sake—this thing that she firmly believed would kill her—but she barred him away from her agony. Not even in thought could she endure his presence at the sacrifice.
So, without struggle, those awful days passed, and she mingled with the gay crowd, instinctively hiding the plague-spot in her soul. Each day she encountered Hunt-Goring at one function or another, meeting the gleam in his dark eyes with no outward tremor but with a heart gone cold. He made no attempt to be alone with her; he was content to bide his time, knowing that the game was his. And each night the memory of his hateful kisses wound like a thread of evil through her brain, banishing all rest.
It was on the afternoon preceding the Ball that Nick called her out to the verandah where he and Sir Reginald were sitting. She liked Sir Reginald, he was genial and kindly and exceedingly easy to entertain.
He drew forward a chair beside him as she approached. “Come and join us, Miss Ratcliffe! Nick and I have been having a very lengthy confab. I am afraid you will accuse me of monopolizing him.”
Olga came to the chair and sat beside him. “I hope you have been telling him to stop his visits to the native quarter at night,” she said. “They are very bad for him. Look how thin he is getting!”
Nick laughed, but Sir Reginald shook his head. “If I may be allowed to say so, I don’t think you are either of you looking very robust,” he said. “India plays tricks with us, doesn’t she? It doesn’t do to let her get too strong a hold. I think Nick will be in a position to take you Home before the end of next month, Miss Ratcliffe. His work here is practically done, and a very brilliant service he has rendered the Government. It has been a very delicate task, and he has accomplished it with marked ability.”
“Oh, is it finished?” said Olga.
“Not finished—no!” said Nick. “And never will be with Kobad Shikan in power. But I rather fancy the days of that old gentleman’s supremacy are drawing to an end. I’ve been teaching friend Akbar a thing or two lately. He is beginning to see which way the cat jumps, and to realize that the only way to hold his own is to hold by his masters. I’ve been the antidote to a big dose of sedition administered by the hoary Kobad, and I fancy I’ve brought him round. Kobad’s influence is undermined in all directions, and I fancy the old sinner is beginning to know it.”