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   Chapter 8 THE MINISTERING ANGEL

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 9631

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"And what am I going to do?" demanded Mrs. Ermsted fretfully. She was lounging in the easiest chair in Mrs. Ralston's drawing-room with a cigarette between her fingers. A very decided frown was drawing her delicate brows. "I had no idea you could be so fickle," she said.

"My dear, I shall welcome you here just as heartily as I ever have," Mrs. Ralston assured her, without lifting her eyes from the muslin frock at which she was busily stitching.

Mrs. Ermsted pouted. "That may be. But I shan't come very often when she is here. I don't like widows. They are either so melancholy that they give you the hump or so self-important that you want to slap them. I never did fancy this girl, as you know. Much too haughty and superior."

"You never knew her, dear," said Mrs. Ralston.

Mrs. Ermsted's laugh had a touch of venom. "As I have tried more than once to make you realize," she said, "there are at least two points of view to everybody. You, dear Mrs. Ralston, always wear rose-coloured spectacles, with the unfortunate result that your opinion is so unvaryingly favourable that nobody values it."

Mrs. Ralston's faded face flushed faintly. She worked on in silence.

For a space Netta Ermsted smoked her cigarette with her eyes fixed upon space; then very suddenly she spoke again. "I wonder if Ralph Dacre committed suicide."

Mrs. Ralston started at the abrupt surmise. She looked up for the first time. "Really, my dear! What an extraordinary thing to say!"

Little Mrs. Ermsted jerked up her chin aggressively. "Why extraordinary, I wonder? Nothing could be more extraordinary than his death. Either he jumped over the precipice or she pushed him over when he wasn't looking. I wonder which."

But at that Mrs. Ralston gravely arose and rebuked her. She never suffered any nervous qualms when dealing with this volatile friend of hers. "It is more than foolish," she said with decision; "it is wicked, to talk like that. I will not sit and listen to you. You have a very mischievous brain, Netta. You ought to keep it under better control."

Mrs. Ermsted stretched out her dainty feet in front of her and made a grimace. "When you call me Netta, I always know it is getting serious," she remarked. "I withdraw it all, my dear angel, with the utmost liberality. You shall see how generous I can be to my supplanter. But do like a good soul finish those tiresome tucks before you begin to be really cross with me! Poor little Tessa really needs that frock, and ayah is such a shocking worker. I shan't be able to turn to you for anything when the estimable Mrs. Dacre is here. In fact I shall be driven to Mrs. Burton for companionship and counsel, and shall become more catty than ever."

"My dear, please"-Mrs. Ralston spoke very earnestly-"do not imagine for an instant that having that poor girl to care for will make the smallest difference to my friendship for you! I hope to see as much of you and little Tessa as I have ever seen. I feel that Stella would be fond of children. Your little one would be a comfort to any sore heart."

"She can be a positive little devil," observed Tessa's mother dispassionately. "But it's better than being a saint, isn't it? Look at that hateful child, Cedric Burton-detestable little ape! That Burton complacency gets on my nerves, especially in a child. But then look at the Burtons! How could they help having horrible little self-opinionated apes for children?"

"My dear, your tongue-your tongue!" protested Mrs. Ralston.

Mrs. Ermsted shot it out and in again with an impudent smile. "Well, what's the matter with it? It's quite a candid one-like your own. A little more pointed perhaps and something venomous upon occasion. But it has its good qualities also. At least it is never insincere."

"Of that I am sure." Mrs. Ralston spoke with ready kindliness. "But, oh, my dear, if it were only a little more charitable!"

Netta Ermsted smiled at her like a wayward child. "I like saying nasty things about people," she said. "It amuses me. Besides, they're nearly always true. Do tell me what you think of that latest hat erection of Lady Harriet's! I never saw her look more aristocratically hideous in my life than she looked at the Rajah's garden-party yesterday. I felt quite sorry for the Rajah, for he's a nice boy notwithstanding his forty wives, and he likes pretty things." She gave a little laugh, and stretched her white arms up, clasping her hands behind her head. "I have promised to ride with him in the early mornings now and then. Won't darling Dick be jealous when he knows?"

Mrs. Ralston uttered a sigh. There were times when all her attempts to reform this giddy little butterfly seemed unavailing. Nevertheless, being sound of principle and unfailingly conscientious, she made a gallant effort. "Do you

think you ought to do that, dear? I always think that we ought to live more circumspectly here at Bhulwana than down at Kurrumpore. And-if I may be allowed to say so-your husband is such a good, kind man, so indulgent, it seems unfair to take advantage of it."

"Oh, is he?" laughed Netta. "How ill you know my doughty Richard! Why, it's half the fun in life to make him mad. He nearly turned me over his knee and spanked me the last time."

"My dear, I wish he had!" said Mrs. Ralston, with downright fervour. "It would do you good."

"Think so?" Netta flicked the ash from her cigarette with a disdainful gesture. "It all depends. I should either worship him or loath him afterwards. I wonder which. Poor old Richard! It's silly of him to stay in love with the same person always, isn't it? I couldn't be so monotonous if I tried."

"In fact if he cared less about you, you would think more of him," remarked Mrs. Ralston, with a quite unusual touch of severity.

Netta Ermsted laughed again, her light, heartless laugh. "How crushingly absolute! But it is the literal truth. I certainly should. He's cheap now, poor old boy. That's why I lead him such a dog's life. A man should never be cheap to his wife. Now look at your husband! Indifference personified! And you have never given him an hour's anxiety in his life."

Mrs. Ralston's pale blue eyes suddenly shone. She looked almost young again. "We understand each other," she said simply.

A mocking smile played about Mrs. Ermsted's lips, but she said nothing for the moment. In her own fashion she was fond of the surgeon's wife, and she would not openly deride her, dear good soul.

"When you've quite finished that," she remarked presently, "there's a tussore frock of my own I want to consult you about. There's one thing about Stella; she won't be wanting many clothes, so I shall be able to retain your undivided attention in that respect. I really don't know what Tessa and I would do without you. The tiresome little thing is always tearing her clothes to pieces."

Mrs. Ralston smiled, a soft mother-smile. "You're a lucky, lucky girl," she said, "though you don't realize it, and probably never will. When are you going to bring the little monkey to see me again?"

"She will probably come herself when the mood takes her," carelessly Mrs. Ermsted made reply. "I assure you, you stand very high on her visiting list. But I hardly ever take her anywhere. She is always so naughty with me." She chose another cigarette with the words. "She is sure to be a pretty frequent visitor while Tommy Denvers is here. She worships him."

"He is a nice boy," observed Mrs. Ralston. "I wish he could have got longer leave. It would have comforted Stella to have him."

"I suppose she can go down to him at Kurrumpore if she doesn't mind sacrificing that rose-leaf complexion," rejoined Mrs. Ermsted, shutting her matchbox with a spiteful click. "You stayed down last hot weather."

"Gerald was not well and couldn't leave his post," said Mrs. Ralston. "That was different. I felt he needed me."

"And so you nearly killed yourself to satisfy the need," commented Mrs. Ermsted. "I sometimes think you are rather a fine woman, notwithstanding appearances." She glanced at the watch on her wrist. "By Jove, how late it is! Your latest protégée will be here immediately. You must have been aching to tell me to go for the last half-hour. You silly saint! Why didn't you?"

"I have no wish for you to go, dear," responded Mrs. Ralston tranquilly. "All my visitors are an honour to my house."

Mrs. Ermsted sprang to her feet with a swift, elastic movement. "Mary, I love you!" she said. "You are a ministering angel, faithful friend, and priceless counsellor, all combined. I laugh at you for a frump behind your back, but when I am with you, I am spellbound with admiration. You are really superb."

"Thank you, dear," said Mrs. Ralston.

She returned the impulsive kiss bestowed upon her with a funny look in her blue eyes that might almost have been compassionate if it had not been so unmistakably humorous. She did not attempt to make the embrace a lingering one, however, and Netta Ermsted took her impetuous departure with a piqued sense of uncertainty.

"I wonder if she really has got any brains after all," she said aloud, as she sped away in her "rickshaw." "She is a quaint creature anyhow. I rather wonder that I bother myself with her."

At which juncture she met the Rajah, resplendent in green puggarree and riding his favourite bay Arab, and forthwith dismissed Mrs. Ralston and all discreet counsels to the limbo of forgotten things. She had dubbed the Rajah her Arabian Knight. His name for her was of too intimate an order to be pronounced in public. She was the Lemon-scented Lily of his dreams.

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