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   Chapter 4 THE BRIDE

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 8679

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It was remarked by Tommy's brother-officers on the following day that it was he rather than the bride who displayed all the shyness that befitted the occasion.

As he walked up the aisle with his sister's hand on his arm, his face was crimson and reluctant, and he stared straight before him as if unwilling to meet all the watching eyes that followed their progress. But the bride walked proudly and firmly, her head held high with even the suspicion of an upward, disdainful curve to her beautiful mouth, the ghost of a defiant smile. To all who saw her she was a splendid spectacle of bridal content.

"Unparalleled effrontery!" whispered Lady Harriet, surveying the proud young face through her lorgnettes.

"Ah, but she is exquisite," murmured Mrs. Ralston with a wistful mist in her faded eyes.

"'Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,'" scoffed little Mrs. Ermsted upon whose cheeks there bloomed a faint fixed glow.

Yes, she was splendid. Even the most hostile had to admit it. On that, the day of her final victory, she surpassed herself. She shone as a queen with majestic self-assurance, wholly at her ease, sublimely indifferent to all criticism.

At the chancel-steps she bestowed a brief smile of greeting upon her waiting bridegroom, and for a single moment her steady eyes rested, though without any gleam of recognition, upon the dark face of the best man.

Then the service began, and with the utmost calmness of demeanour she took her part.

When the service was over, Tommy extended his hesitating invitation to Lady Harriet and his commanding officer to follow the newly wedded pair to the vestry. They went. Colonel Mansfield with a species of jocose pomposity specially assumed for the occasion, his wife, upright, thin-lipped, forbidding, instinct with wordless disapproval.

The bride,-the veil thrown back from her beautiful face,-stood laughing with her husband. There was no fixity in the soft flush of those delicately rounded cheeks. Even Lady Harriet realized that, though she had never seen so much colour in the girl's face before. She advanced stiffly, and Ralph Dacre with smiling grace took his wife's arm and drew her forward.

"This is good of you, Lady Harriet," he declared. "I was hoping for your support. Allow me to introduce-my wife!"

His words had a pride of possession that rang clarion-like in every syllable, and in response Lady Harriet was moved to offer a cold cheek in salutation to the bride. Stella bent instantly and kissed it with a quick graciousness that would have melted any one less austere, but in Lady Harriet's opinion the act was marred by its very impulsiveness. She did not like impulsive people. So, with chill repression, she accepted the only overture from Stella that she was ever to receive.

But if she were proof against the girl's ready charm, with her husband it was quite otherwise. Stella broke through his pomposity without effort, giving him both her hands with a simplicity that went straight to his heart. He held them in a tight, paternal grasp.

"God bless you, my dear!" he said. "I wish you both every happiness from the bottom of my soul."

She turned from him a few seconds later with a faintly tremulous laugh to give her hand to the best man, but it did not linger in his, and to his curtly proffered felicitations she made no verbal response whatever.

Ten minutes later, as she left the vestry with her husband, Mrs. Ralston pressed forward unexpectedly, and openly checked her progress in full view of the whole assembly.

"My dear," she murmured humbly, "my dear, you'll allow me I know. I wanted just to tell you how beautiful you look, and how earnestly I pray for your happiness."

It was a daring move, and it had not been accomplished without courage. Lady Harriet in the background stiffened with displeasure, nearer to actual anger than she had ever before permitted herself to be with any one so contemptible as the surgeon's wife. Even Major Ralston himself, most phlegmatic of men, looked momentarily disconcerted by his wife's action.

But Stella-Stella stopped dead with a new light in her eyes, and in a moment dropped her husband's arm to fling both her own about the gentle, faded woman who had dared thus openly to range herself on her side.

"Dear Mrs. Ralston," she said, no

t very steadily, "how more than kind of you to tell me that!"

The tears were actually in her eyes as she kissed the surgeon's wife. That spontaneous act of sympathy had pierced straight through her armour of reserve and found its way to her heart. Her face, as she passed on down the aisle by her husband's side, was wonderfully softened, and even Mrs. Ermsted found no gibe to fling after her. The smile that quivered on Stella's lips was full of an unconscious pathos that disarmed all criticism.

The sunshine outside the church was blinding. It smote through the awning with pitiless intensity. Around the carriage a curious crowd had gathered to see the bridal procession. To Stella's dazzled eyes it seemed a surging sea of unfamiliar faces. But one face stood out from the rest-the calm countenance of Ralph Dacre's magnificent Sikh servant clad in snowy linen, who stood at the carriage door and gravely bowed himself before her, stretching an arm to protect her dress from the wheel.

"This is Peter the Great," said Dacre's careless voice, "a highly honourable person, Stella, and a most efficient bodyguard."

"How do you do?" said Stella, and held out her hand.

She acted with the utmost simplicity. During her four weeks' sojourn in India she had not learned to treat the native servant with contempt, and the majestic presence of this man made her feel almost as if she were dealing with a prince.

He straightened himself swiftly at her action, and she saw a sudden, gleaming smile flash across his grave face. Then he took the proffered hand, bending low over it till his turbaned forehead for a moment touched her fingers.

"May the sun always shine on you, my mem-sahib!" he said.

Stella realized afterwards that in action and in words there lay a tacit acceptance of her as mistress which was to become the allegiance of a lifelong service.

She stepped into the carriage with a feeling of warmth at her heart which was very different from the icy constriction that had bound it when she had arrived at the church a brief half-hour before with Tommy.

Her husband's arm was about her as they drove away. He pressed her to his side. "Oh, Star of my heart, how superb you are!" he said. "I feel as if I had married a queen. And you weren't even nervous."

She bent her head, not looking at him. "Poor Tommy was," she said.

He smiled tolerantly. "Tommy's such a youngster."

She smiled also. "Exactly one year younger than I am."

He drew her nearer, his eyes devouring her. "You, Stella!" he said. "You are as ageless as the stars."

She laughed faintly, not yielding herself to the closer pressure though not actually resisting it. "That is merely a form of telling me that I am much older than I seem," she said. "And you are quite right. I am."

His arm compelled her. "You are you," he said. "And you are so divinely young and beautiful that there is no measuring you by ordinary standards. They all know it. That is why you weren't received into the community with open arms. You are utterly above and beyond them all."

She flinched slightly at the allusion. "I hope I am not so extraordinary as all that," she said.

His arm became insistent. "You are unique," he said. "You are superb."

There was passion barely suppressed in his hold and a sudden swift shiver went through her. "Oh, Ralph," she said, "don't-- don't worship me too much!"

Her voice quivered in its appeal, but somehow its pathos passed him by. He saw only her beauty, and it thrilled every pulse in his body. Fiercely almost, he strained her to him. And he did not so much as notice that her lips trembled too piteously to return his kiss, or that her submission to his embrace was eloquent of mute endurance rather than glad surrender. He stood as a conqueror on the threshold of a newly acquired kingdom and exulted over the splendour of its treasures because it was all his own.

It did not even occur to him to doubt that her happiness fully equalled his. Stella was a woman and reserved; but she was happy enough, oh, she was happy enough. With complacence he reflected that if every man in the mess envied him, probably every woman in the station would have gladly changed places with her. Was he not Fortune's favourite? What happier fate could any woman desire than to be his bride?

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