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   Chapter 6 THE GARDEN

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 16669

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Heaven of the Orient! It was a week since Stella had penned those words, and still the charm held her, the wonder grew. Never in her life had she dreamed of a land so perfect, so subtly alluring, so overwhelmingly full of enchantment. Day after day slipped by in what seemed an endless succession. Night followed magic night, and the spell wound closer and ever closer about her. She sometimes felt as if her very individuality were being absorbed into the marvellous beauty about her, as if she had been crystallized by it and must soon cease to be in any sense a being apart from it.

The siren-music of the torrent that dashed below their camping-ground filled her brain day and night. It seemed to make active thought impossible, to dull all her senses save the one luxurious sense of enjoyment. That was always present, slumbrous, almost cloying in its unfailing sweetness, the fruit of the lotus which assuredly she was eating day by day. All her nerves seemed dormant, all her energies lulled. Sometimes she wondered if the sound of running water had this stultifying effect upon her, for wherever they went it followed them. The snow-fed streams ran everywhere, and since leaving Srinagar she could not remember a single occasion on which they had been out of earshot of their perpetual music. It haunted her like a ceaseless refrain, but yet she never wearied of it. There was no thought of weariness in this mazed, dream-world of hers.

At the beginning of her married life, so far behind her now that she scarcely remembered it, she had gone through pangs of suffering and fierce regret. Her whole nature had revolted, and it had taken all her strength to quell it. But that was long, long past. She had ceased to feel anything now, but a dumb and even placid acquiescence in this lethargic existence, and Ralph Dacre was amply satisfied therewith. He had always been abundantly confident of his power to secure her happiness, and he was blissfully unconscious of the wild impulse to rebellion which she had barely stifled. He had no desire to sound the deeps of her. He was quite content with life as he found it, content to share with her the dreamy pleasures that lay in this fruitful wilderness, and to look not beyond.

He troubled himself but little about the future, though when he thought of it that was with pleasure too. He liked, now and then, to look forward to the days that were coming when Stella would shine as a queen-his queen-among an envious crowd. Her position assured as his wife, even Lady Harriet herself would have to lower her flag. And how little Netta Ermsted would grit her teeth! He laughed to himself whenever he thought of that. Netta had become too uppish of late. It would be amusing to see how she took her lesson.

And as for his brother-officers, even the taciturn Monck had already shown that he was not proof against Stella's charms. He wondered what Stella thought of the man, well knowing that few women liked him, and one evening, as they sat together in the scented darkness with the roar of their mountain-stream filling the silences, he turned their fitful conversation in Monck's direction to satisfy his lazy curiosity in this respect.

"I suppose I ought to write to the fellow," he said, "but if you've written to Tommy it's almost the same thing. Besides, I don't suppose he would be in the smallest degree interested. He would only be bored."

There was a pause before Stella answered; but she was often slow of speech in those days. "I thought you were friends," she said.

"What? Oh, so we are." Ralph Dacre laughed, his easy, complacent laugh. "But he's a dark horse, you know. I never know quite how to take him. Your brother Tommy is a deal more intimate with him than I am, though I have stabled with him for over four years. He's a very clever fellow, there's no doubt of that-altogether too brainy for my taste. Clever fellows always bore me. Now I wonder how he strikes you."

Again there was that slight pause before Stella spoke, but there was nothing very vital about it. She seemed to be slow in bringing her mind to bear upon the subject. "I agree with you," she said then. "He is clever. And he is kind too. He has been very good to Tommy."

"Tommy would lie down and let him walk over him," remarked Dacre. "Perhaps that is what he likes. But he's a cold-blooded sort of cuss. I don't believe he has a spark of real affection for anybody. He is too ambitious."

"Is he ambitious?" Stella's voice sounded rather weary, wholly void of interest.

Dacre inhaled a deep breath of cigar-smoke and puffed it slowly forth. His curiosity was warming. "Oh yes, ambitious as they're made. Those strong, silent chaps always are. And there's no doubt he will make his mark some day. He is a positive marvel at languages. And he dabbles in Secret Service matters too, disguises himself and goes among the natives in the bazaars as one of themselves. A fellow like that, you know, is simply priceless to the Government. And he is as tough as leather. The climate never touches him. He could sit on a grille and be happy. No doubt he will be a very big pot some day." He tipped the ash from his cigar. "You and I will be comfortably growing old in a villa at Cheltenham by that time," he ended.

A little shiver went through Stella. She said nothing and silence fell between them again. The moon was rising behind a rugged line of snow-hills across the valley, touching them here and there with a silvery radiance, casting mysterious shadows all about them, sending a magic twilight over the whole world so that they saw it dimly, as through a luminous veil. The scent of Dacre's cigar hung in the air, fragrant, aromatic, Eastern. He was sleepily watching his wife's pure profile as she gazed into her world of dreams. It was evident that she took small interest in Monck and his probable career. It was not surprising. Monck was not the sort of man to attract women; he cared so little about them-this silent watcher whose eyes were ever searching below the surface of Eastern life, who studied and read and knew so much more than any one else and yet who guarded knowledge and methods so closely that only those in contact with his daily life suspected what he hid.

"He will surprise us all some day," Dacre placidly reflected. "Those quiet, ambitious chaps always soar high. But I wouldn't change places. with him even if he wins to the top of the tree. People who make a specialty of hard work never get any fun out of anything. By the time the fun comes along, they are too old to enjoy it."

And so he lay at ease in his chair, feasting his eyes upon his young wife's grave face, savouring life with the zest of the epicurean, placidly at peace with all the world on that night of dreams.

It was growing late, and the moon had topped the distant peaks sending a flood of light across the sleeping valley before he finally threw away the stump of his cigar and stretched forth a lazy arm to draw her to him.

"Why so silent, Star of my heart? Where are those wandering thoughts of yours?"

She submitted as usual to his touch, passively, without enthusiasm. "My thoughts are not worth expressing, Ralph," she said.

"Let us hear them all the same!" he said, laying his head against her shoulder.

She sat very still in his hold. "I was only watching the moonlight," she said. "Somehow it made me think-of a flaming sword."

"Turning all ways?" he suggested, indolently humorous. "Not driving us forth out of the garden of Eden, I hope? That would be a little hard on two such inoffensive mortals as we are, eh, sweetheart?"

"I don't know," she said seriously. "I doubt if the plea of inoffensiveness would open the gates of Heaven to any one."

He laughed. "I can't talk ethics at this time of night, Star of my heart. It's time we went to our lair. I believe you would sit here till sunrise if I would let you, you most ethereal of women. Do you ever think of your body at all, I wonder?"

He kissed her neck with the careless words, and a quick shiver went through her. She made a slight, scarcely perceptible movement to free herself.

But the next moment sharply, almost convulsively, she grasped his arm. "Ralph! What is that?"

She was gazing towards the shadow cast by a patch of flowering azalea in th

e moonlight about ten yards from where they sat. Dacre raised himself with leisurely self-assurance and peered in the same direction. It was not his nature to be easily disturbed.

But Stella's hand still clung to his arm, and there was agitation in her hold. "What is it?" she whispered. "What can it be? I have seen it move-twice. Ah, look! Is it-is it-a panther?"

"Good gracious, child, no!" Carelessly he made response, and with the words disengaged himself from her hand and stood up. "It's more probably some filthy old beggar who fondly thinks he is going to get backsheesh for disturbing us. You stay here while I go and investigate!"

But some nervous impulse goaded Stella. She also started up, holding him back. "Oh, don't go, Ralph! Don't go! Call one of the men! Call Peter!"

He laughed at her agitation. "My dear girl, don't be absurd! I don't want Peter to help me kick a beastly native. In fact he probably wouldn't lower himself to do such a thing."

But still she clung to him. "Ralph, don't go! Please don't go! I have a feeling-I am afraid-I-" She broke off panting, her fingers tightly clutching his sleeve. "Don't go!" she reiterated.

He put his arm round her. "My dear, what do you think a tatterdemalion gipsy is going to do to me? He may be a snake-charmer, and if so the sooner he is got rid of the better. There! What did I tell you? He is coming out of his corner. Now, don't be frightened! It doesn't do to show funk to these people."

He held her closely to him and waited. Beside the flowering azalea something was undoubtedly moving, and as they stood and watched, a strange figure slowly detached itself from the shadows and crept towards them. It was clad in native garments and shuffled along in a bent attitude as if deformed. Stella stiffened as she stood. There was something unspeakably repellent to her in its toadlike advance.

"Make one of the men send him away!" she whispered urgently. "Please do! It may be a snake-charmer as you say. He moves like a reptile himself. And I-abhor snakes."

But Dacre stood his ground. He felt none of her shrinking horror of the bowed, misshapen creature approaching them. In fact he was only curious to see how far a Kashmiri beggar's audacity would carry him.

Within half a dozen paces of them, in the full moonlight, the shambling figure halted and salaamed with clawlike hands extended. His deformity bent him almost double, but he was so muffled in rags that it was difficult to discern any tangible human shape at all. A tangled black beard hung wisplike from the dirty chuddah that draped his head, and above it two eyes, fevered and furtive, peered strangely forth.

The salaam completed, the intruder straightened himself as far as his infirmity would permit, and in a moment spoke in the weak accents of an old, old man. "Will his most gracious excellency be pleased to permit one who is as the dust beneath his feet to speak in his presence words which only he may hear?"

It was the whine of the Hindu beggar, halting, supplicatory, almost revoltingly servile. Stella shuddered with disgust. The whole episode was so utterly out of place in that moonlit paradise. But Dacre's curiosity was evidently aroused. To her urgent whisper to send the man away he paid no heed. Some spirit of perversity-or was it the hand of Fate upon him?-made him bestow his supercilious attention upon the cringing visitor.

"Speak away, you son of a centipede!" he made kindly rejoinder. "I am all ears-the mem-sahib also."

The man waved a skinny, protesting arm. "Only his most gracious excellency!" he insisted, seeming to utter the words through parched lips. "Will not his excellency deign to give his unworthy servant one precious moment that he may speak in the august one's ear alone?"

"This is highly mysterious," commented Dacre. "I think I shall have to find out what he wants, eh, Stella? His information may be valuable."

"Oh, do send him away!" Stella entreated. "I am not used to these natives. They frighten me."

"My dear child, what nonsense!" laughed Dacre. "What harm do you imagine a doddering old fool like this could do to any one? If I were Monck, I should invite him to join the party. Not being Monck, I propose to hear what he has to say and then kick him out. You run along to bed, dear! I'll soon settle him and follow you. Don't be uneasy! There is really no need."

He kissed her lightly with the words, flattered by her evident anxiety on his behalf though fully determined to ignore it.

Stella turned beside him in silence, aware that he could be immovably obstinate when once his mind was made up. But the feeling of dread remained upon her. In some fantastic fashion the beauty of the night had become marred, as though evil spirits were abroad. For the first time she wanted to keep her husband at her side.

But it was useless to protest. She was moreover half-ashamed herself at her uneasiness, and his treatment of it stung her into the determination to dismiss it. She parted with him before their tent with no further sign of reluctance.

He on his part kissed her in his usual voluptuous fashion. "Good-night, darling!" he said lightly. "Don't lie awake for me! When I have got rid of this old Arabian Nights sinner, I may have another smoke. But don't get impatient! I shan't be late."

She withdrew herself from him almost with coldness. Had she ever been impatient for his coming? She entered the tent proudly, her head high. But the moment she was alone, reaction came. She stood with her hands gripped together, fighting the old intolerable misgiving that even the lulling magic all around her had never succeeded in stilling. What was she doing in this garden of delights with a man she did not love? Had she not entered as it were by stealth? How long would it be before her presence was discovered and she thrust forth into the outermost darkness in shame and bitterness of soul?

Another thought was struggling at the back of her mind, but she held it firmly there. Never once had she suffered it to take full possession of her. It belonged to that other life which she had found too hard to endure. Vain regrets and futile longings-she would have none of them. She had chosen her lot, she would abide by the choice. Yes, and she would do her duty also, whatever it might entail. Ralph should never know, never dimly suspect. And that other-he would never know either. His had been but a passing fancy. He trod the way of ambition, and there was no room in his life for anything besides. If she had shown him her heart, it had been but a momentary glimpse; and he had forgotten already. She was sure he had forgotten. And she had desired that he should forget. He had penetrated her stronghold indeed, but it was only as it were the outer defences that had fallen. He had not reached the inner fort. No man would ever reach that now-certainly, most certainly, not the man to whom she had given herself. And to none other would the chance be offered.

No, she was secure; she was secure. She guarded her heart from all. And she could not suffer deeply-so she told herself-so long as she kept it close. Yet, as the wonder-music of the torrent lulled her to sleep, a face she knew, dark, strong, full of silent purpose, rose before her inner vision and would not be driven forth. What was he doing to-night? Was he wandering about the bazaars in some disguise, learning the secrets of that strange native India that had drawn him into her toils? She tried to picture that hidden life of his, but could not. The keen, steady eyes, set in that calm, emotionless face, held her persistently, defeating imagination. Of one thing only was she certain. He might baffle others, but by no amount of ingenuity could he ever deceive her. She would recognize him in a moment whatever his disguise. She was sure that she would know him. Those grave, unflinching eyes would surely give him away to any who really knew him. So ran her thoughts on that night of magic till at last sleep came, and the vision faded. The last thing she knew was a memory that awoke and mocked her-the sound of a low voice that in spite of herself she had to hear.

"I was waiting," said the voice, "till my turn should come."

With a sharp pang she cast the memory from her-and slept.

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