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   Chapter 7 THE SERPENT IN THE GARDEN

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 24325

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Now, you old sinner! Let's hear your valuable piece of information!" Carelessly Ralph Dacre sauntered forth again into the moonlight and confronted the tatterdemalion figure of his visitor.

The contrast between them was almost fantastic so strongly did the arrogance of the one emphasize the deep abasement of the other. Dacre was of large build and inclined to stoutness. He had the ruddy complexion of the English country squire. He moved with the swagger of the conquering race.

The man who cringed before him, palsied, misshapen, a mere wreck of humanity, might have been a being from another sphere-some underworld of bizarre creatures that crawled purblind among shadows.

He salaamed again profoundly in response to Dacre's contemptuous words, nearly rubbing his forehead upon the ground. "His most noble excellency is pleased to be gracious," he murmured. "If he will deign to follow his miserably unworthy servant up the goat-path where none may overhear, he will speak his message and depart."

"Oh, it's a message, is it?" With a species of scornful tolerance Dacre turned towards the path indicated. "Well, lead on! I'm not coming far-no, not for untold wealth. Nor am I going to waste much time over you. I have better things to do."

The old man turned also with a cringing movement. "Only a little way, most noble!" he said in his thin, cracked voice. "Only a little way!"

Hobbling painfully, he began the ascent in front of the strolling Englishman. The path ran steeply up between close-growing shrubs, following the winding of the torrent far below. In places the hillside was precipitous and the roar of the stream rose louder as it dashed among its rocks. The heavy scent of the azalea flowers hung like incense everywhere, mingling aromatically with the smoke from Dacre's newly lighted cigar.

With his hands in his pockets he followed his guide with long, easy strides. The ascent was nothing to him, and the other's halting progress brought a smile of contemptuous pity to his lips. What did the old rascal expect to gain from the interview he wondered?

Up and up the narrow path they went, till at length a small natural platform in the shoulder of the hill was reached, and here the ragged creature in front of Dacre paused and turned.

The moonlight smote full upon him, revealing him in every repulsive detail. His eyes burned in their red-rimmed sockets as he lifted them. But he did not speak even after the careless saunter of the Englishman had ceased at his side. The dash of the stream far below rose up like the muffled roar of a train in a tunnel. The bed of it was very narrow at that point and the current swift.

For a moment or two Dacre stood waiting, the cigar still between his lips, his eyes upon the gleaming caps of the snow-hills far away. But very soon the spell of them fell from him. It was not his nature to remain silent for long.

With his easy, superior laugh he turned and looked his motionless companion up and down. "Well?" he said. "Have you brought me here to admire the view? Very fine no doubt; but I could have done it without your guidance."

There was no immediate reply to his carelessly flung query, and faint curiosity arose within him mingling with his strong contempt. He pulled a hand out of his pocket and displayed a few annas in his palm.

"Well?" he said again. "What may this valuable piece of information be worth?"

The other made an abrupt movement; it was almost as if he curbed some savage impulse to violence. He moved back a pace, and there in the moonlight before Dacre's insolent gaze-he changed.

With a deep breath he straightened himself to the height of a tall man. The bent contorted limbs became lithe and strong. The cringing humility slipped from him like a garment. He stood upright and faced Ralph Dacre-a man in the prime of life.

"That," he said, "is a matter of opinion. So far as I am concerned, it has cost a damned uncomfortable journey. But-it will probably cost you more than that."

"Great-Jupiter!" said Dacre.

He stood and stared and stared. The curt speech, the almost fiercely contemptuous bearing, the absolute, unwavering assurance of this man whom but a moment before he had so arrogantly trampled underfoot sent through him such a shock of amazement as nearly deprived him of the power to think. Perhaps for the first time in his life he was utterly and completely at a loss. Only as he gazed at the man before him, there came upon him, sudden as a blow, the memory of a certain hot day more than a year before when he and Everard Monck had wrestled together in the Club gymnasium for the benefit of a little crowd of subalterns who had eagerly betted upon the result. It had been sinew versus weight, and after a tough struggle sinew had prevailed. He remembered the unpleasant sensation of defeat even now though he had had the grit to take it like a man and get up laughing. It was one of the very few occasions he could remember upon which he had been worsted.

But now-to-night-he was face to face with something of an infinitely more serious nature. This man with the stern, accusing eyes and wholly merciless attitude-what had he come to say? An odd sensation stirred at Dacre's heart like an unsteady hand knocking for admittance. There was something wrong here-- something wrong.

"You-madman!" he said at length, and with the words pulled himself together with a giant effort. "What in the name of wonder are you doing here?" He had bitten his cigar through in his astonishment, and he tossed it away as he spoke with a gesture of returning confidence. He silenced the uneasy foreboding within and met the hard eyes that confronted him without discomfiture. "What's your game?" he said. "You have come to tell me something, I suppose. But why on earth couldn't you write it?"

"The written word is not always effectual," the other man said.

He put up a hand abruptly and stripped the ragged hair from his face, pushing back the heavy folds of the chuddah that enveloped his head as he did so. His features gleamed in the moonlight, lean and brown, unmistakably British.

"Monck!" said Dacre, in the tone of one verifying a suspicion.

"Yes-Monck." Grimly the other repeated the name. "I've had considerable trouble in following you here. I shouldn't have taken it if I hadn't had a very urgent reason."

"Well, what the devil is it?" Dacre spoke with the exasperation of a man who knows himself to be at a disadvantage. "If you want to know my opinion, I regard such conduct as damned intrusive at such a time. But if you've any decent excuse let's hear it!"

He had never adopted that tone to Monck before, but he had been rudely jolted out of his usually complacent attitude, and he resented Monck's presence. Moreover, an unpleasant sense of inferiority had begun to make itself felt. There was something judicial about Monck-something inexorable and condemnatory-something that aroused in him every instinct of self-defence.

But Monck met his blustering demand with the utmost calm. It was as if he held him in a grip of iron intention from which no struggles, however desperate, could set him free.

He took an envelope from the folds of his ragged raiment. "I believe you have heard me speak of my brother Bernard," he said, "chaplain of Charthurst Prison."

Dacre nodded. "The fellow who writes to you every month. Well? What of him?"

Monck's steady fingers detached and unfolded a letter. "You had better read for yourself," he said, and held it out.

But curiously Dacre hung back as if unwilling to touch it.

"Can't you tell me what all the fuss is about?" he said irritably.

Monck's hand remained inflexibly extended. He spoke, a jarring note in his voice. "Oh yes, I can tell you. But you had better see for yourself too. It concerns you very nearly. It was written in Charthurst Prison nearly six weeks ago, where a woman who calls herself your wife is undergoing a term of imprisonment for forgery."

"Damnation!" Ralph Dacre actually staggered as if he had received a blow between the eyes. But almost in the next moment he recovered himself, and uttered a quivering laugh. "Man alive! You are not fool enough to believe such a cock-and-bull story as that!" he said. "And you have come all this way in this fancy get-up to tell me! You must be mad!"

Monck was still holding out the letter. "You had better see for yourself," he reiterated. "It is damnably circumstantial."

"I tell you it's an infernal lie!" flung back Dacre furiously. "There is no woman on this earth who has any claim on me-except Stella. Why should I read it? I tell you it's nothing but damned fabrication-a tissue of abominable falsehood!"

"You mean to deny that you have ever been through any form of marriage before?" said Monck slowly.

"Of course I do!" Dacre uttered another angry laugh. "You must be a positive fool to imagine such a thing. It's preposterous, unheard of! Of course I have never been married before. What are you thinking of?"

Monck remained unmoved. "She has been a music-hall actress," he said. "Her name is-or was-Madelina Belleville. Do you tell me that you have never had any dealings whatever with her?"

Dacre laughed again fiercely, scoffingly. "You don't imagine that I would marry a woman of that sort, do you?" he said.

"That is no answer to my question," Monck said firmly.

"Confound you!" Dacre blazed into open wrath. "Who the devil are you to enquire into my private affairs? Do you think I am going to put up with your damned impertinence? What?"

"I think you will have to." Monck spoke quitely, but there was deadly determination in his words. "It's a choice of evils, and if you are wise you will choose the least. Are you going to read the letter?"

Dacre stared at him for a moment or two with eyes of glowering resentment; but in the end he put forth a hand not wholly steady and took the sheet held out to him. Monck stood beside him in utter immobility, gazing out over the valley with a changeless vigilance that had about it something fateful.

Minutes passed. Dacre seemed unable to lift his eyes from the page. But it fluttered in his hold, though the night was still, as if a strong wind were blowing.

Suddenly he moved, as one who violently breaks free from some fettering spell. He uttered a bitter oath and tore the sheet of paper passionately to fragments. He flung them to the ground and trampled them underfoot.

"Ten million curses on her!" he raved. "She has been the bane of my life!"

Monck's eyes came out of the distance and surveyed him, coldly curious. "I thought so," he said, and in his voice was an odd inflection as of one who checks a laugh at an ill-timed jest.

Dacre stamped again like an infuriated bull. "If I had her here-I'd strangle her!" he swore. "That brother of yours is an artist. He has sketched her to the life-the she-devil!" His voice cracked and broke. He was breathing like a man in torture. He swayed as he stood.

And still Monck remained passive, grim and cold and unyielding. "How long is it since you married her?" he questioned at last.

"I tell you I never married her!" Desperately Dacre sought to recover lost ground, but he had slipped too far.

"You told me that lie before," Monck observed in his even judicial tones. "Is it-worth while?"

Dacre glared at him, but his glare was that of the hunted animal trapped and helpless. He was conquered, and he knew it.

Calmly Monck continued. "There is not much doubt that she holds proof of the marriage, and she will probably try to establish it as soon as she is free."

"She will never get anything more out of me," said Dacre. His voice was low and sullen. There was that in the other man's attitude that stilled his fury, rendering it futile, even in a fashion ridiculous.

"I am not thinking of you." Monck's coldness had in it something brutal. "You are not the only person concerned. But the fact remains-this woman is your wife. You may as well tell the truth about it as not-since I know."

Dacre jerked his head like an angry bull, but he submitted. "Oh well, if yo

u must have it, I suppose she was-once," he said. "She caught me when I was a kid of twenty-one. She was a bad 'un even then, and it didn't take me long to find it out. I could have divorced her several times over, only the marriage was a secret and I didn't want my people to know. The last I heard of her was that her name was among the drowned on a wrecked liner going to America. That was six years ago or more; and I was thankful to be rid of her. I regarded her death as one of the biggest slices of luck I'd ever had. And now-curse her!"-he ended savagely-"she has come to life again!"

He glanced at Monck with the words, almost as if seeking sympathy; but Monck's face was masklike in its unresponsiveness. He said nothing whatever.

In a moment Dacre took up the tale. "I've considered myself free ever since we separated, after only six weeks together. Any man would. It was nothing but a passing fancy. Heaven knows why I was fool enough to marry her, except that I had high-flown ideas of honour in those days, and I got drawn in. She never regarded it as binding, so why in thunder should I?" He spoke indignantly, as one who had the right of complaint.

"Your ideas of honour having altered somewhat," observed Monck, with bitter cynicism.

Dacre winced a little. "I don't profess to be anything extraordinary," he said. "But I maintain that marriage gives no woman the right to wreck a man's life. She has no more claim upon me now than the man in the moon. If she tries to assert it, she will soon find her mistake." He was beginning to recover his balance, and there was even a hint of his customary complacence audible in his voice as he made the declaration. "But there is no reason to believe she will," he added. "She knows very well that she has nothing whatever to gain by it. Your brother seems to have gathered but a vague idea of the affair. You had better write and tell him that the Dacre he means is dead. Your brother-officer belongs to another branch of the family. That ought to satisfy everybody and no great harm done, what?"

He uttered the last word with a tentative, disarming smile. He was not quite sure of his man, but it seemed to him that even Monck must see the utter futility of making a disturbance about the affair at this stage. Matters had gone so far that silence was the only course-silence on his part, a judicious lie or two on the part of Monck. He did not see how the latter could refuse to render him so small a service. As he himself had remarked but a few moments before, he, Dacre, was not the only person concerned.

But the absolute and uncompromising silence with which his easy suggestion was received was disquieting. He hastened to break it, divining that the longer it lasted the less was it likely to end in his favour.

"Come, I say!" he urged on a friendly note. "You can't refuse to do this much for a comrade in a tight corner! I'd do the same for you and more. And remember, it isn't my happiness alone that hangs in the balance! We've got to think of-Stella!"

Monck moved at that, moved sharply, almost with violence. Yet, when he spoke, his voice was still deliberate, cuttingly distinct. "Yes," he said. "And her honour is worth about as much to you, apparently, as your own! I am thinking of her-and of her only. And, so far as I can see, there is only one thing to be done."

"Oh, indeed!" Dacre's air of half-humorous persuasion dissolved into insolence. "And I am to do it, am I? Your humble servant to command!"

Monck stretched forth a sinewy arm and slowly closed his fist under the other man's eyes. "You will do it-yes," he said. "I hold you-like that."

Dacre flinched slightly in spite of himself. "What do you mean? You would never be such a-such a cur-as to give me away?"

Monck made a sound that was too full of bitterness to be termed a laugh. "You're such an infernal blackguard," he said, "that I don't care a damn whether you go to the devil or not. The only thing that concerns me is how to protect a woman's honour that you have dared to jeopardize, how to save her from open shame. It won't be an easy matter, but it can be done, and it shall be done. Now listen!" His voice rang suddenly hard, almost metallic. "If this thing is to be kept from her-as it must be-as it shall be-you must drop out-vanish. So far as she is concerned you must die to-night."

"I?" Dacre stared at him in startled incredulity. "Man, are you mad?"

"I am not." Keen as bared steel came the answer. Monck's impassivity was gone. His face was darkly passionate, his whole bearing that of a man relentlessly set upon obtaining the mastery. "But if you imagine her safety can be secured without a sacrifice, you are wrong. Do you think I am going to stand tamely by and see an innocent woman dragged down to your beastly level? What do you suppose her point of view would be? How would she treat the situation if she ever came to know? I believe she would kill herself."

"But she never need know! She never shall know!" There was a note of desperation in Dacre's rejoinder. "You have only got to hush it up, and it will die a natural death. That she-devil will never take the trouble to follow me out here. Why should she? She knows very well that she has no claim whatever upon me. Stella is the only woman who has any claim upon me now."

"You are right." Grimly Monck took him up. "And her claim is the claim of an honourable woman to honourable treatment. And so far as lies in your power and mine, she shall have it. That is why you will do this thing-disappear to-night, go out of her life for good, and let her think you dead. I will undertake then that the truth shall never reach her. She will be safe. But there can be no middle course. She shall not be exposed to the damnable risk of finding herself stranded."

He ceased to speak, and in the moonlight their eyes met as the eyes of men who grip together in a death-struggle.

The silence between them was more terrible than words. It held unutterable things.

Dacre spoke at last, his voice low and hoarse. "I can't do it. There is too much involved. Besides, it wouldn't really help. She would come to know inevitably."

"She will never know." Inexorably came the answer, spoken with pitiless insistence. "As to ways and means, I have provided for them. It won't be difficult in this wilderness to cover your tracks. When the news has gone forth that you are dead, no one will look for you."

A hard shiver went through Dacre. His hands clenched. He was as a man in the presence of his executioner. The paralysing spell was upon him again, constricting as a rope about his neck. But sacrifice was no part of his nature. With despair at his heart, he yet made a desperate bid for freedom.

"The whole business is outrageous!" he said. "It is out of the question. I refuse to do it. Matters have gone too far. To all intents and purposes, Stella is my wife, and I'm damned if any one shall come between us. You may do your worst! I refuse."

Defiance was his only weapon, and he hurled it with all his strength; but the moment he had done so, he realized the hopelessness of the venture. Monck made a single, swift movement, and in a moment the moonlight glinted upon the polished muzzle of a Service revolver. He spoke, briefly, with iron coldness.

"The choice is yours. Only-if you refuse to give her-the sanctuary of widowhood-I will! After all it would be the safest way for all concerned."

Dacre went back a pace. "Going to murder me, what?" he said.

Monck's teeth gleamed in a terrible smile. "You need not-refuse," he said.

"True!" Dacre was looking him full in the eyes with more of curiosity than apprehension. "And-as you have foreseen-I shall not refuse under those circumstances. It would have saved time if you had put it in that light before."

"It would. But I hoped you might have the decency to act without-persuasion." Monck was speaking between his teeth, but the revolver was concealed again in the folds of his garment. "You will leave to-night-at once-without seeing her again. That is understood."

It was the end of the conflict. Dacre attempted no further resistance. He was not the man to waste himself upon a cause that he realized to be hopeless. Moreover, there was about Monck at that moment a force that restrained him, compelled instinctive respect. Though he hated the man for his mastery, he could not despise him. For he knew that what he had done had been done through a rigid sense of honour and that chivalry which goes hand in hand with honour-the chivalry with which no woman would have credited him.

That Monck had nought but the most disinterested regard for any woman, he firmly believed, and probably that conviction gave added strength to his position. That he should fight thus for a mere principle, though incomprehensible in Dacre's opinion, was a circumstance that carried infinitely more weight than more personal championship. Monck was the one man of his acquaintance who had never displayed the smallest desire to compete for any woman's favour, who had never indeed shown himself to be drawn by any feminine attractions, and his sudden assumption of authority was therefore unassailable. In yielding to the greater power, Dacre yielded to a moral force rather than to human compulsion. And though driven sorely against his will, he respected the power that drove. His dumb gesture of acquiescence conveyed as much as he turned away relinquishing the struggle.

He had fought hard, and he had been defeated. It was bitter enough, but after all he had had his turn. The first hot rapture was already passing. Love in the wilderness could not last for ever. It had been fierce enough-too fierce to endure. And characteristically he reflected that Stella's cold beauty would not have held him for long. He preferred something more ardent, more living. Moreover, his nature demanded a certain meed of homage from the object of his desire, and undeniably this had been conspicuously lacking. Stella was evidently one to accept rather than to give, and there had been moments when this had slightly galled him. She seemed to him fundamentally incapable of any deep feeling, and though this had not begun to affect their relations at present, he had realized in a vague fashion that because of it she would not hold him for ever. So, after the first, he knew that he would find consolation. Certainly he would not break his heart for her or for any woman, nor did he flatter himself that she would break hers for him.

Meantime-he prepared to shrug his shoulders over the inevitable. Things might have been much worse. And perhaps on the whole it was safer to obey Monck's command and go. An open scandal would really be a good deal worse for him than for Stella, who had little to lose, and there was no knowing what might happen if he took the risk and remained. Emphatically he had no desire to face a personal reckoning at some future date with the she-devil who had been the bane of his existence. It was an unlikely contingency but undoubtedly it existed, and he hated unpleasantness of all kinds. So, philosophically, he resolved to adjust himself to this burden. There was something of the adventurer in his blood and he had a vast belief in his own ultimate good luck. Fortune might frown for awhile, but he knew that he was Fortune's favourite notwithstanding. And very soon she would smile again.

But for Monck he had only the bitter hate of the conquered. He cast a malevolent look upon him with eyes that were oddly narrowed-a measuring, speculative look that comprehended his strength and registered the infallibility thereof with loathing. "I wonder what happened to the serpent," he said, "when the man and woman were thrust out of the garden."

Monck had readjusted his disguise. He looked back with baffling, inscrutable eyes, his dark face masklike in its impenetrability. But he spoke no word in answer. He had said his say. Like a mantle he gathered his reserve about him again, as a man resuming a solitary journey through the desert which all his life he had travelled alone.

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