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   Chapter 9 THE RETURN

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 14594

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Stella's first impression of Bhulwana was the extremely European atmosphere that pervaded it. Bungalows and pine-woods seemed to be its main characteristics, and there was about it none of the languorous Eastern charm that had so haunted the forbidden paradise. Bhulwana was a cheerful place, and though perched fairly high among the hills of Markestan it was possible to get very hot there. For this reason perhaps all the energies of its visitors were directed towards the organizing of gaieties, and in the height of the summer it was very gay indeed.

The Rajah's summer palace, white and magnificent, occupied the brow of the hill, and the bungalows that clustered among the pines below it looked as if there had been some competition among them as to which could get the nearest.

The Ralstons' bungalow was considerably lower down the hill. It stood upon more open ground than most, and overlooked the race-course some distance below. It was an ugly little place, and the small compound surrounding it was a veritable wilderness. It had been named "The Grand Stand" owing to its position, but no one less racy than its present occupant could well have been found. Mrs. Ralston's wistful blue eyes seldom rested upon the race-course. They looked beyond to the mist-veiled plains.

The room she had prepared for Stella's reception looked in an easterly direction towards the winding, wooded road that led up to the Rajah's residence. Great care had been expended upon it. Her heart had yearned to the girl ever since she had heard of her sudden bereavement, and her delight at the thought of receiving her was only second to her sorrow upon Stella's account.

Higher up the hill stood the dainty bungalow which Ralph Dacre had taken for his bride. The thought of it tore Mrs. Ralston's tender heart. She had written an urgent epistle to Tommy imploring him not to let his sister go there in her desolation. And, swayed by Tommy's influence, and, it might be, touched by Mrs. Ralston's own earnest solicitude, Stella, not caring greatly whither she went, had agreed to take up her abode for a time at least with the surgeon's wife. There was no necessity to make any sudden decision. The whole of her life lay before her, a dreary waste of desert. It did not seem to matter at that stage where she spent those first forlorn months. She was tired to the soul of her, and only wanted to rest.

She hoped vaguely that Mrs. Ralston would have the tact to respect this wish of hers. Her impression of this the only woman who had shown her any kindness since her arrival in India was not of a very definite order. Mrs. Ralston with her faded prettiness and gentle, retiring ways did not possess a very arresting personality. No one seeing her two or three times could have given any very accurate description of her. Lady Harriet had more than once described her as a negligible quantity. But Lady Harriet systematically neglected everyone who had no pretensions to smartness. She detested all dowdy women.

But Stella still remembered with gratitude the warmth of affectionate admiration and sympathy that had melted her coldness on her wedding-day, and something within her, notwithstanding her utter weariness, longed to feel that warmth again. Though she scarcely realized it, she wanted the clasp of motherly arms, shielding her from the tempest of life.

Tommy, who had met her at Rawal Pindi on the dreadful return journey, had watched over her and cared for her comfort with the utmost tenderness; but Tommy, like Peter, was somehow outside her confidence. He was just a blundering male with the best intentions. She could not have opened her heart to him had she tried. She was unspeakably glad to have him with her, and later on she hoped to join him again at The Green Bungalow down at Kurrumpore where they had dwelt together during the weeks preceding her marriage. For Tommy was the only relative she had in the world who cared for her. And she was very fond of Tommy, but she was not really intimate with him. They were just good comrades.

As a married woman, she no longer feared the veiled shafts of malice that had pierced her before. Her position was assured. Not that she would have cared greatly in any case. Such trivial things belonged to the past, and she marvelled now at the thought that they had ever seriously affected her. She was changed, greatly changed. In one short month she had left her girlhood behind her. Her proud shyness had utterly departed. She had returned a grave, reserved woman, indifferent, almost apathetic, wholly self-contained. Her natural stateliness still clung about her, but she did not cloak herself therewith. She walked rather as one rapt in reverie, looking neither to the right nor to the left.

Mrs. Ralston nearly wept when she saw her, so shocked was she by the havoc that strange month had wrought. All the soft glow of youth had utterly passed away. White and cold as alabaster, a woman empty and alone, she returned from the forbidden paradise, and it seemed to Mrs. Ralston at first that the very heart of her had been shattered like a beautiful flower by the closing of the gates.

But later, when Stella had been with her for a few hours, she realized that life still throbbed deep down below the surface, though, perhaps in self-defence, it was buried deep, very far from the reach of all casual investigation. She could not speak of her tragedy, but she responded to the mute sympathy Mrs. Ralston poured out to her with a gratitude that was wholly unfeigned, and the latter understood clearly that she would not refuse her admittance though she barred out all the world beside.

She was deeply touched by the discovery, reflecting in her humility that Stella's need must indeed have been great to have drawn her to herself for comfort. It was true that nearly all her friends had been made in trouble which she had sought to alleviate, but Mary Ralston was too lowly to ascribe to herself any virtue on that account. She only thanked God for her opportunities.

On the night of their arrival, when Stella had gone to her room, Tommy spoke very seriously of his sister's state and begged Mrs. Ralston to do her utmost to combat the apathy which he had found himself wholly unable to pierce.

"I haven't seen her shed a single tear," he said. "People who didn't know would think her heartless. I can't bear to see that deadly coldness. It isn't Stella."

"We must be patient," Mrs. Ralston said.

There were tears in the boy's own eyes for which she liked him, but she did not encourage him to further confidence. It was not her way to discuss any friend with a third person, however intimate.

Tommy left the subject without realizing that she had turned him from it.

"I don't know in the least how she is left," he said restlessly. "Haven't an idea what sort of state Dacre's affairs were in. I ought to have asked him, but I never had the chance; and everything was done in such a mighty hurry. I don't suppose he had much to leave if anything. It was a fool marriage," he ended bitterly. "I always hated it. Monck knew that."

"Doesn't Captain Monck know anything?" asked Mrs. Ralston.

"Oh, goodness knows. Monck's away on urgent business, been away for ever so long now. I haven't se

en him since Dacre's death. I daresay he doesn't even know of that yet. He had to go Home. I suppose he is on his way back again now; I hope so anyway. It's pretty beastly without him."

"Poor Tommy!" Mrs. Ralston's sympathy was uppermost again. "It's been a tragic business altogether. But let us be thankful we have dear Stella safely back! I am going to say good night to her now. Help yourself to anything you want!"

She went, and Tommy stretched himself out on a long chair with a sigh of discontent over things in general. He had had no word from Monck throughout his absence, and this was almost the greatest grievance of all.

Treading softly the passage that led to Stella's door, Mrs. Ralston nearly stumbled over a crouching, white-clad figure that rose up swiftly and noiselessly on the instant and resolved itself into the salaaming person of Peter the Sikh. He had slept across Stella's threshold ever since her bereavement.

"My mem-sahib is still awake," he told her with a touch of wistfulness. "She sleeps only when the night is nearly spent."

"And you sleep at her door?" queried Mrs. Ralston, slightly disconcerted.

The tall form bent again with dignified courtesy. "That is my privilege, mem-sahib," said Peter the Great.

He smiled mournfully, and made way for her to pass.

Mrs. Ralston knocked, and heard a low voice speak in answer. "What is it, Peter?"

Softly she opened the door. "It is I, my dear. Are you in bed? May I come and bid you good night?"

"Of course," Stella made instant reply. "How good you are! How kind!"

A shaded night-lamp was burning by her side. Her face upon the pillow was in deep shadow. Her hair spread all around her, wrapping her as it were in mystery.

As Mrs. Ralston drew near, she stretched out a welcoming hand. "I hope my watch-dog didn't startle you," she said. "The dear fellow is so upset that I don't want an ayah, he is doing his best to turn himself into one. I couldn't bear to send him away. You don't mind?"

"My dear, I mind nothing." Mrs. Ralston stooped in her warm way and kissed the pale, still face. "Are you comfortable? Have you everything you want?"

"Everything, thank you," Stella answered, drawing her hostess gently down to sit on the side of the bed. "I feel rested already. Somehow your presence is restful."

"Oh, my dear!" Mrs. Ralston flushed with pleasure. Not many were the compliments that came her way. "And you feel as if you will be able to sleep?"

Stella's eyes looked unutterably weary; yet she shook her head. "No. I never sleep much before morning. I think I slept too much when I was in Kashmir. The days and nights all seemed part of one long dream." A slight shudder assailed her; she repressed it with a shadowy smile. "Life here will be very different," she said. "Perhaps I shall be able to wake up now. I am not in the least a dreamy person as a rule."

The quick tears sprang to Mrs. Ralston's eyes; she stroked Stella's hand without speaking.

"I wanted to go back to Kurrumpore with Tommy," Stella went on, "but he won't hear of it, though he tells me that you stayed there through last summer. If you could stand it, so could I. I feel sure that physically I am much stronger."

"Oh no, dear, no. You couldn't do it." Mrs. Ralston looked down upon the beautiful face very tenderly. "I am tough, you know, dried up and wiry. And I had a very strong motive. But you are different. You would never stand a hot season at Kurrumpore. I can't tell you what it is like there. At its worst it is unspeakable. I am very glad that Tommy realizes the impossibility of it. No, no! Stay here with me till I go down! I am always the first. And it will give me so much pleasure to take care of you."

Stella relinquished the discussion with a short sigh. "It doesn't seem to matter much what I do," she said. "Tommy certainly doesn't need me. No one does. And I expect you will soon get very tired of me."

"Never, dear, never." Mrs. Ralston's hand clasped hers reassuringly. "Never think that for a moment! From the very first day I saw you I have wanted to have you to love and care for."

A gleam of surprise crossed Stella's face. "How very kind of you!" she said.

"Oh no, dear. It was your own doing. You are so beautiful," murmured the surgeon's wife. "And I knew that you were the same all through-beautiful to the very soul."

"Oh, don't say that!" Sharply Stella broke in upon her. "Don't think it! You don't know me in the least. You-you have far more beauty of soul than I have, or can ever hope to have now."

Mrs. Ralston shook her head.

"But it is so," Stella insisted. "I-What am I?" A tremor of passion crept unawares into her low voice. "I am a woman who has been denied everything. I have been cast out like Eve, but without Eve's compensations. If I had been given a child to love, I might have had hope. But now I have none-I have none. I am hard and bitter,-old before my time, and I shall never now be anything else."

"Oh, darling, no!" Very swiftly Mrs. Ralston checked her. "Indeed you are wrong. We can make of our lives what we will. Believe me, the barren woman can be a joyful mother of children if she will. There is always someone to love."

Stella's lips were quivering. She turned her face aside. "Life is very difficult," she said.

"It gets simpler as one goes on, dear," Mrs. Ralston assured her gently. "Not easy, oh no, not easy. We were never meant to make an easy-chair of circumstance however favourable. But if we only press on, it does get simpler, and the way opens out before us as we go. I have learnt that at least from life." She paused a moment, then bent suddenly down and spoke into Stella's ear. "May I tell you something about myself-something I have never before breathed to any one-except to God?"

Stella turned instantly. "Yes, tell me!" she murmured back, clasping closely the thin hand that had so tenderly stroked her own.

Mrs. Ralston hesitated a second as one who pauses before making a supreme effort. Then under her breath she spoke again. "Perhaps it will not interest you much. I don't know. It is only this. Like you, I wanted-I hoped for-a child. And-I married without loving-just for that. Stella, my sin was punished. The baby came-and went-and there can never be another. I thought my heart was broken at the time. Oh, it was bitter-bitter. Even now-sometimes-" She stopped herself. "But no, I needn't trouble you with that. I only want to tell you that very beautiful flowers bloom sometimes out of ashes. And it has been so with me. My rose of love was slow in growing, but it blossoms now, and I am training it over all the blank spaces. And it grew out of a barren soil, dear, out of a barren soil."

Stella's arms were close about her as she finished. "Oh, thank you," she whispered tremulously, "thank you for telling me that."

But though she was deeply stirred, no further confidence could she bring herself to utter. She had found a friend-a close, staunch friend who would never fail her; but not even to her could she show the blackness of the gulf into which she had been hurled. Even now there were times when she seemed to be still falling, falling, and always, waking or sleeping, the nightmare horror of it clung cold about her soul.

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