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   Chapter 10 THE BARREN SOIL

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 10220

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

No one could look askance at poor Ralph Dacre's young widow. Lady Harriet Mansfield graciously hinted as much when she paid her state call within a week of her arrival. Also, she desired to ascertain Stella's plans for the future, and when she heard that she intended to return to Kurrumpore with Mrs. Ralston she received the news with a species of condescending approval that seemed to indicate that Stella's days of probation were past. With the exercise of great care and circumspection she might even ultimately be admitted to the fortunate circle which sunned itself in the light of Lady Harriet's patronage.

Tommy elevated his nose irreverently when the august presence was withdrawn and hoped that Stella would not have her head turned by the royal favour. He prophesied that Mrs. Burton would be the next to come simpering round, and in this he was not mistaken; but Stella did not receive this visitor, for on the following day she was in bed with an attack of fever that prostrated her during the rest of his leave.

It was not a dangerous illness, and Mrs. Ralston nursed her through it with a devotion that went far towards cementing the friendship already begun between them. Tommy, though regretful, consoled himself by the ready means of the station's gaieties, played tennis with zest, inaugurated a gymkhana, and danced practically every night into the early morning. He was a delightful companion for little Tessa Ermsted who followed him everywhere and was never snubbed, an inquiring mind notwithstanding. Truly a nice boy was Tommy, as everyone agreed, and the regret was general when his leave began to draw to a close.

On the afternoon of his last day he made his appearance on the verandah of The Grand Stand for tea, with his faithful attendant at his heels, to find his sister reclining there for the first time on a charpoy well lined with cushions, while Mrs. Ralston presided at the tea-table beside her.

She looked the ghost of her former self, and for a moment though he had visited her in bed only that morning, Tommy was rudely startled.

"Great Jupiter!" he ejaculated. "How ill you look!"

She smiled at his exclamation, while his small, sharp-faced companion pricked up attentive ears. "Do people look like that when they're going to die?" she asked.

"Not in the least, dear," said Mrs. Ralston tranquilly. "Come and speak to Mrs. Dacre and tell us what you have been doing!"

But Tessa would only stand on one leg and stare, till Stella put forth a friendly hand and beckoned her to a corner of her charpoy.

She went then, still staring with wide round eyes of intensest blue that gazed out of a somewhat pinched little face of monkey-like intelligence.

"What have you and Tommy been doing?" Stella asked.

"Oh, just hobnobbing," said Tessa. "Same as Mother and the Rajah."

"Have some cake!" said Tommy. "And tell us all about the mongoose!"

"Oh, Scooter! He's such a darling! Shall I bring him to see you?" asked Tessa, lifting those wonderful unchildlike eyes of hers to Stella's. "You'd love him! I know you would. He talks-almost. Captain Monck gave him to me. I never liked him before, but I do now. I wish he'd come back, and so does Tommy. Don't you think he's a nice man?"

"I don't know him very well," said Stella.

"Oh, don't you? That's because he's so quiet. I used to think he was surly. But he isn't really. He's only shy. Is he, Aunt Mary?" The blue eyes whisked round to Mrs. Ralston and were met by a slightly reproving shake of the head. "No, but really," Tessa protested, "he is a nice man. Tommy says so. Mother doesn't like him, but that's nothing to go by. The people she likes are hardly ever nice. Daddy says so."

"Tessa," said Mrs. Ralston gently, "we don't want to hear about that. Tell us some more about Captain Monck's mongoose instead!"

Tessa frowned momentarily. Such nursery discipline was something of an insult to her eight years' dignity, but in a second she sent a dazzling smile to her hostess, accepting the rebuff. "All right, Aunt Mary, I'll bring him to see you to-morrow, shall I?" she said brightly. "Mrs. Dacre will like that too. It'll be something to amuse us when Tommy's gone."

Tommy looked across with a grin. "Yes, keep your spirits up!" he said. "It's dull work with the boys away, isn't it, Aunt Mary? And Scooter is a most sagacious animal-almost as intelligent as Peter the Great who coils himself on Stella's threshold every night as if he thought the bogeyman was coming to spirit her away. He's developing into a habit, isn't he Stella? You'd better be careful."

Stella smiled her faint, tired smile. "I like to have him there," she said. "I am not nervous, of course, but he is a friend."

"You'll never shake him off," predicted Tommy. "He comes of a romantic stock. Hullo! Here is his high mightiness with the mail! Look at the sparkle in Aunt Mary's eyes! Did you ever see the like? She expects to draw a prize evidently."

He stretched a leisurely arm and took the letter from the salver that the Indian extended. It was for Mrs. Ralston, and she received

it blushing like an eager girl.

"Why does Aunt Mary look like that?" piped Tessa, ever observant. "It's only from the Major. Mother never looks like that when Daddy writes to her."

"Perhaps Daddy's letters are not so interesting," suggested Tommy.

Tessa chuckled. "Shall I tell you what? She'd ever so much rather have a letter from the Rajah. I know she would. She keeps his locked up, but she never bothers about Daddy's. I can't think what the Rajah finds to write about when they are always meeting. I think it's silly, don't you?"

"Very silly," said Tommy. "I hate writing letters myself. Beastly dull work."

"Perhaps you will excuse me while I read mine," said Mrs. Ralston.

Stella smiled at her. "Oh do! Perhaps there will be some interesting news of Kurrumpore in it."

"News of Monck perhaps," suggested Tommy. "There's a fellow who never writes a letter. I haven't the faintest idea where he is or what he is doing, except that he went to his brother somewhere in England. He is due back in about a fortnight, but I probably shan't hear a word of him until he's there."

"You have not written to him either?" questioned Stella.

"I couldn't. I didn't know where to write." Tommy's eyes met hers with slight hesitation. "I haven't been able to tell him anything of our affairs. It's quite possible though that he will have heard before he gets back to The Green Bungalow. He generally gets hold of things."

"It need not make any difference." Stella spoke slowly, her eyes fixed upon the green race-course that gleamed in the sun below them. "So far as I am concerned, he is quite welcome to remain at The Green Bungalow. I daresay we should not get in each other's way. That is," she looked at her brother, "if you prefer that arrangement."

"I say, that's jolly decent of you!" Tommy's face was flushed with pleasure. "Sure you mean it?"

"Quite sure." Stella spoke rather wearily. "It really doesn't matter to me-except that I don't want to come between you and your friend. Now that I have been married-" a tinge of bitterness sounded in her voice-"I suppose no one will take exception. But of course Captain Monck may see the matter in a different light. If so, pray let him do as he thinks fit!"

"You bet he will!" said Tommy. "He's about the most determined cuss that ever lived."

"He's a very nice man," put in Tessa jealously.

Tommy laughed. "He's one of the best," he agreed heartily. "And he's the sort that always comes out on top sooner or later. Just you remember that, Tessa! He's a winner, and he's straight-straight as a die." "Which is all that matters," said Mrs. Ralston, without lifting her eyes from her letter.

"Hear, hear!" said Tommy. "Why do you look like that, Stella? Mean to say he isn't straight?"

"I didn't say anything." Stella still spoke wearily, albeit she was faintly smiling. "I was only wondering."

"Wondering what?" Tommy's voice had a hint of sharpness; he looked momentarily aggressive.

"Just wondering how much you knew of him, that's all," she made answer.

"I know as much as any one," asserted Tommy quickly. "He's a man to be honoured. I'd stake my life on that. He is incapable of anything mean or underhand."

Stella was silent. The boy's faith was genuine, she knew, but, remembering what Ralph Dacre had told her on their last night together, she could not stifle the wonder as to whether Tommy had ever grasped the actual quality of his friend's character. It seemed to her that Tommy's worship was of too humble a species to afford him a very comprehensive view of the object thereof. She was sure that unlike herself-he would never presume to criticize, would never so much as question any action of Monck's. Her own conception of the man, she was aware, had altered somewhat since that night. She regarded him now with a wholly dispassionate interest. She had attracted him, but she much doubted if the attraction had survived her marriage. For herself, that chapter in her life was closed and could never, she now believed, be reopened. Monck had gone his way, she hers, and they had drifted apart. Only by the accident of circumstance would they meet again, and she was determined that when this meeting took place their relations should be of so impersonal a character that he should find it well-nigh impossible to recall the fact that any hint of romance had ever hovered even for a fleeting moment between them. He had his career before him. He followed the way of ambition, and he should continue to follow it, unhindered by any thought of her. She was dependent upon no man. She would pick up the threads of her own life and weave of it something that should be worth while. With the return of health this resolution was forming within her. Mrs. Ralston's influence was making itself felt. She believed that the way would open out before her as she went. She had made one great mistake. She would never make such another. She would be patient. It might be in time that to her, even as to her friend, a blossoming might come out of the barren soil in which her life was cast.

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