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   Chapter 11 THE SUMMONS

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 22828

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


During those months spent at Bhulwana with the surgeon's wife a measure of peace did gradually return to Stella. She took no part in the gaieties of the station, but her widow's mourning made it easy for her to hold aloof. Undoubtedly she earned Lady Harriet's approval by so doing, but Mrs. Ermsted continued to look at her askance, notwithstanding the fact that her small daughter had developed a warm liking for the sister of her beloved Tommy.

"Wait till she gets back to Kurrumpore," said Mrs. Ermsted. "We shall see her in her true colours then."

She did not say this to Mrs. Ralston. She visited The Grand Stand less and less frequently. She was always full of engagements and seldom had a moment to spare for the society of this steady friend of hers. And Mrs. Ralston never sought her out. It was not her way. She was ready for all, but she intruded upon none.

Mrs. Ralston's affection for Stella had become very deep. There was between them a sympathy that was beyond words. They understood each other.

As the wet season drew on, their companionship became more and more intimate though their spoken confidences were few. Mrs. Ralston never asked for confidences though she probably received more than any other woman in the station.

It was on a day in September of drifting clouds and unbroken rain that Stella spoke at length of a resolution that had been gradually forming in her mind. She found no difficulty in speaking; in fact it seemed the natural thing to do. And she felt even as she gave utterance to the words that Mrs. Ralston already knew their import.

"Mary," she said, "after Christmas I am going back to England."

Mrs. Ralston betrayed no surprise. She was in the midst of an elaborate darn in the heel of a silk sock. She looked across at Stella gravely.

"And when you get there, my dear?" she said.

"I shall find some work to do." Stella spoke with the decision of one who gives utterance to the result of careful thought. "I think I shall go in for hospital training. It is hard work, I know; but I am strong. I think hard work is what I need."

Mrs. Ralston was silent.

Stella went on. "I see now that I made a mistake in ever coming out here. It wasn't as if Tommy really wanted me. He doesn't, you know. His friend Captain Monck is all-sufficing-and probably better for him. In any case-he doesn't need me."

"You may be right, dear," Mrs. Ralston said, "though I doubt if Tommy would view it in the same light. I am glad anyhow that you will spend Christmas out here. I shall not lose you so soon."

Stella smiled a little. "I don't want to hurt Tommy's feelings, and I know they would be hurt if I went sooner. Besides I would like to have one cold weather out here."

"And why not?" said Mrs. Ralston. She added after a moment, "What will you do with Peter?"

Stella hesitated. "That is one reason why I have not come to a decision sooner. I don't like leaving poor Peter. It occurred to me possibly that down at Kurrumpore he might find another master. Anyway, I shall tell him my plans when I get there, and he will have the opportunity"-she smiled rather sadly-"to transfer his devotion to someone else."

"He won't take it," said Mrs. Ralston with conviction. "The fidelity of these men is amazing. It puts us to shame."

"I hate the thought of parting with him," Stella said. "But what can I do?"

She broke off short as the subject of their discussion came softly into the room, salver in hand. He gave her a telegram and stood back decorously behind her chair while she opened it.

Mrs. Ralston's grave eyes watched her, and in a moment Stella looked up and met them. "From Kurrumpore," she said.

Her face was pale, but her hands and voice were steady.

"From Tommy?" questioned Mrs. Ralston.

"No. From Captain Monck. Tommy is ill-very ill. Malaria again. He thinks I had better go to him."

"Oh, my dear!" Mrs. Ralston's exclamation held dismay.

Stella met it by holding out to her the message. "Tommy down with malaria," it said. "Condition serious. Come if you are able. Monck."

Mrs. Ralston rose. She seemed to be more agitated than Stella. "I shall go too," she said.

"No, dear, no!" Stella stopped her. "There is no need for that. I shall be all right. I am perfectly strong now, stronger than you are. And they say malaria never attacks newcomers so badly. No. I will go alone. I won't be answerable to your husband for you. Really, dear, really, I am in earnest."

Her insistence prevailed, albeit Mrs. Ralston yielded very unwillingly. She was not very strong, and she knew well that her husband would be greatly averse to her taking such a step. But the thought of Stella going alone was even harder to face till her look suddenly fell upon Peter the Great standing motionless behind her chair.

"Ah well, you will have Peter," she said with relief.

And Stella, who was bending already over her reply telegram, replied instantly with one of her rare smiles. "Of course I shall have Peter!"

Peter's responding smile was good to see. "I will take care of my mem-sahib," he said.

Stella's reply was absolutely simple. "Starting at once," she wrote; and within half an hour her preparations were complete.

She knew Monck well enough to be certain that he would not have telegraphed that urgent message had not the need been great. He had nursed Tommy once before, and she knew that in Tommy's estimation at least he had been the means of saving his life. He was a man of steady nerve and level judgment. He would not have sent for her if his faith in his own powers had not begun to weaken. It meant that Tommy was very ill, that he might be dying. All that was great in Stella rose up impulsively at the call. Tommy had never really wanted her before.

To Mrs. Ralston who at the last stood over her with a glass of wine she was as a different woman. There was nothing headlong about her, but the quiet energy of her made her realize that she had been fashioned for better things than the social gaieties with which so many were content. Stella would go to the deep heart of life.

She yearned to accompany her upon her journey to the plains, but Stella's solemn promise to send for her if she were taken ill herself consoled her in a measure. Very regretfully did she take leave of her, and when the rattle of the wheels that bore Stella and the faithful Peter away had died at last in the distance she turned back into her empty bungalow with tears in her eyes. Stella had become dear to her as a sister.

It was an all-night journey, and only a part of it could be accomplished by train, the line ending at Khanmulla which was reached in the early hours of the morning. But for Peter's ministrations Stella would probably have fared ill, but he was an experienced traveller and surrounded her with every comfort that he could devise. The night was close and dank. They travelled through pitch darkness. Stella lay back and tried to sleep; but sleep would not come to her. She was tired, but repose eluded her. The beating of the unceasing rain upon the tin roof, and the perpetual rattle of the train made an endless tattoo in her brain from which there was no escape. She was haunted by the memory of the last journey that she had made along that line when leaving Kurrumpore in the spring, of Ralph and the ever-growing passion in his eyes, of the first wild revolt within her which she had so barely quelled. How far away seemed those days of an almost unbelievable torture! She could regard them now dispassionately, albeit with wonder. She marvelled now that she had ever given herself to such a man. By the light of experience she realized how tragic had been her blunder, and now that the awful sense of shock and desolation had passed she could be thankful that no heavier penalty had been exacted. The man had been taken swiftly, mercifully, as she believed. He had been spared much, and she-she had been delivered from a fate far worse. For she could never have come to love him. She was certain of that. Lifelong misery would have been her portion, school herself to submission though she might. She believed that the awakening from that dream of lethargy could not have been long deferred for either of them, and with it would have come a bitterness immeasurable. She did not think he had ever honestly believed that she loved him. But at least he had never guessed at the actual repulsion with which at times she had been filled. She was thankful to think that he could never know that now, thankful that now she had come into her womanhood it was all her own. She valued her freedom almost extravagantly since it had been given back to her. And she also valued the fact that in no worldly sense was she the richer for having been Ralph Dacre's wife. He had had no private means, and she was thankful that this was so. She could not have endured to reap any benefit from what she now regarded as a sin. She had borne her punishment, she had garnered her experience. And now she walked once more with unshackled feet; and though all her life she would carry the marks of the chain that had galled her she had travelled far enough to realize and be thankful for her liberty.

The train rattled on through the night. Anxiety came, wraith-like at first, drifting into her busy brain. She had hardly had time to be anxious in the rush of preparation and departure. But restlessness paved the way. She began to ask herself with growing uneasiness what could be awaiting her at the end of the journey. The summons had been so clear and imperative. Her first thought, her instinct, had been to obey. Till the enforced inaction of this train journey she had not had time to feel the gnawing torture of suspense. But now it came and racked her. The thought of Tommy and his need became paramount. Did he know that she was hastening to him, she wondered? Or had he-had he already passed beyond her reach? Men passed so quickly in this tropical wilderness. The solemn music of an anthem she had known and loved in the old far-off days of her girlhood rose and surged through her. She found herself repeating the words:

"Our life is but a shadow;

So soon passeth it away,

And we are gone,-

So soon,-so soon."

The repetition of those last words rang like a knell. But Tommy! She could not think of Tommy's eager young life passing so. Those words were written for the old and weary. But for such as Tommy-a thousand times No! He was surely too ardent, too full of life, to pass so. She felt as if he were years younger than herself.

And then another thought came to her, a curious haunting thought. Was the Nemesis that had overtaken her in the forbidden paradise yet pursuing her with relentless persistence? Was the measure of her punishment not yet complete? Did some further vengeance still follow her in the wilderness of her desolation? She tried to fling the thought from her, but it clung like an evil dream. She could not wholly shake off the impression that it had made upon her.

Slowly the night wore away. The heat was intense. She felt as if she were sitting in a tank of steaming vapour. The oppression of the atmosphere was like a physical weight. And ever the rain beat down, rattling, incessant, upon the tin roof above her head. She thought of Nemesis again, Nemesis wielding an iron flail that never missed its mark. There was some

thing terrible to her in this perpetual beating of rain. She had never imagined anything like it.

It was in the dark of the early morning that she began at last to near her destination. A ten-mile drive through the jungle awaited her, she knew. She wondered if Monck had made provision for this or if all arrangements would be left in Peter's capable hands. She had never felt more thankful for this trusty servant of hers than now with the loneliness and darkness of this unfamiliar world hedging her round. She felt almost as one in a hostile country, and even the thought of Tommy and his need could not dispel the impression.

The train rattled into the little iron-built station of Khanmulla. The rainfall seemed to increase as they stopped. It was like the beating of rods upon the station-roof. There came the usual hubbub of discordant cries, but in foreign voices and in a foreign tongue.

Stella gathered her property together in readiness for Peter. Then she turned, somewhat stiff after her long journey, and found the door already swinging open and a man's broad shoulders blocking the opening.

"How do you do?" said Monck.

She started at the sound of his voice. His face was in the shadow, but in a moment his features, dark and dominant, flashed to her memory. She bent to him swiftly, with outstretched hand.

"How good of you to meet me! How is Tommy?"

He held her hand for an instant, and she was aware of a sharp tingling throughout her being, as though by means of that strong grasp he had imparted strength. "He is about as bad as a man can be," he said. "Ralston has been with him all night. I've borrowed his two-seater to fetch you. Don't waste any time!"

Her heart gave a throb of dismay. The brief words were as flail-like as the rain. They demanded no answer, and she made none; only instant submission, and that she gave.

She had a glimpse of Peter's tall form standing behind Monck, and to him for a moment she turned as she descended.

"You will see to everything?" she said. "You will follow."

"Leave all to me, my mem-sahib!" he said, deeply bowing; and she took him at his word.

Monck had a military overcoat on his arm in which he wrapped her before they left the station-shelter. Ralston's little two-seater car shed dazzling beams of light through the dripping dark. She floundered blindly into a pool of water before she reached it, and was doubly startled by Monck lifting her bodily, without apology, out of the mire, and placing her on the seat. The beat of the rain upon the hood made her wonder if they could make any headway under it. And then, while she was still wondering, the engine began to throb like a living thing, and she was aware of Monck squeezing past her to his seat at the wheel.

He did not speak, but he wrapped the rug firmly about her, and almost before she had time to thank him, they were in motion.

That night-ride was one of the wildest experiences that she had ever known. Monck went like the wind. The road wound through the jungle, and in many places was little more than a rough track. The car bumped and jolted, and seemed to cry aloud for mercy. But Monck did not spare, and Stella crouched beside him, too full of wonder to be afraid.

They emerged from the jungle at length and ran along an open road between wide fields of rice or cotton. Their course became easier, and Stella realized that they were nearing the end of their journey. They were approaching the native portion of Kurrumpore.

She turned to the silent man beside her. "Is Tommy expecting me?" she asked.

He did not answer her immediately; then, "He was practically unconscious when I left," he said.

He put on speed with the words. They shot forward through the pelting rain at a terrific pace. She divined that his anxiety was such that he did not wish to talk.

They passed through the native quarter as if on wings. The rain fell in a deluge here. It was like some power of darkness striving to beat them back. She pictured Monck's face, grim, ruthless, forcing his way through the opposing element. The man himself she could barely see.

And then, almost before she realized it, they were in the European cantonment, and she heard the grinding of the brakes as they reached the gate of The Green Bungalow. Monck turned the little car into the compound, and a light shone down upon them from the verandah.

The car came to a standstill. "Do you mind getting out first?" said Monck.

She got out with a dazed sense of unreality. He followed her immediately; his hand, hard and muscular, grasped her arm. He led her up the wooden steps all shining and slippery in the rain.

In the shelter of the verandah he stopped. "Wait here a moment!" he said.

But Stella turned swiftly, detaining him. "No, no!" she said. "I am coming with you. I would rather know at once."

He shrugged his shoulders without remonstrance, and stood back for her to precede him. Later it seemed to her that it was the most merciful thing he could have done. At the time she did not pause to thank him, but went swiftly past, taking her way straight along the verandah to Tommy's room.

The window was open, and a bar of light stretched therefrom like a fiery sword into the streaming rain. Just for a second that gleaming shaft daunted her. Something within her shrank affrighted. Then, aware of Monck immediately behind her, she conquered her dread and entered. She saw that the bar of light came from a hooded lamp which was turned towards the window, leaving the bed in shadow. Over the latter a man was bending. He straightened himself sharply at her approach, and she recognized Major Ralston.

And then she had reached the bed, and all the love in her heart pulsed forth in yearning tenderness as she stooped. "Tommy!" she said. "My darling!"

He did not stir in answer. He lay like a figure carved in marble. Suddenly the rays of the lamp were turned upon him, and she saw that his face was livid. The eyes were closed and sunken. A terrible misgiving stabbed her. Almost involuntarily she drew back.

In the same moment she felt Monck's hands upon her. He was unbuttoning the overcoat in which she was wrapped. She stood motionless, feeling cold, powerless, strangely dependent upon him.

As he stripped the coat back from her shoulders, he spoke, his voice very measured and quiet, but kind also, even soothing.

"Don't give up!" he said. "We'll pull him through between us."

A queer little thrill went through her. Again she felt as if he had imparted strength. She turned back to the bed.

Major Ralston was on the other side. Across that silent form he spoke to her.

"See if you can get him to take this! I am afraid he's past it. But try!"

She saw that he was holding a spoon, and she commanded herself and took it from him. She wondered at the steadiness of her own hand as she put it to the white, unconscious lips. They were rigidly closed, and for a few moments she thought her task was hopeless. Then very slowly they parted. She slipped the spoon between.

The silence in the room was deathly, the heat intense, heavy, pall-like. Outside, the rain fell monotonously, and, mingling with its beating, she heard the croaking of innumerable frogs. Neither Ralston nor Monck stirred a finger. They were watching closely with bated breath.

Tommy's breathing was wholly imperceptible, but in that long, long pause she fancied she saw a slight tremor at his throat. Then the liquid that had been in the spoon began to trickle out at the corner of his mouth.

She stood up, turning instinctively to the man beside her. "Oh, it's no use," she said hopelessly.

He bent swiftly forward. "Let me try! Quick, Ralston! Have it ready! That's it. Now then, Tommy! Now, lad!"

He had taken her place almost before she knew it. She saw him stoop with absolute assurance and slip his arm under the boy's shoulders. Tommy's inert head fell back against him, but she saw his strong right hand come out and take the spoon that Ralston held out. His dark face was bent to his task, and it held no dismay, only unswerving determination.

"Tommy!" he said again, and in his voice was a certain grim tenderness that moved her oddly, sending the tears to her eyes before she could check them. "Tommy, wake up, man! If you think you're going out now, you're damn well mistaken. Wake up, do you hear? Wake up and swallow this stuff! There! You've got it. Now swallow-do you hear?-swallow!"

He held the spoon between Tommy's lips till it was emptied of every drop; then thrust it back at Ralston.

"Here take it! Pour out some more! Now, Tommy lad, it's up to you! Swallow it like a dear fellow! Yes, you can if you try. Give your mind to it! Pull up, boy, pull up! play the damn game! Don't go back on me! Ah, you didn't know I was here, did you? Thought you'd slope while my back was turned. You weren't quick enough, my lad. You've got to come back."

There was a strange note of passion in his voice. It was obvious to Stella that he had utterly forgotten himself in the gigantic task before him. Body and soul were bent to its fulfillment. She could see the perspiration running down his face. She stood and watched, thrilled through and through with the wonder of what she saw.

For at the call of that curt, insistent voice Tommy moved and made response. It was like the return of a departing spirit. He came out of that deathly inertia. He opened his eyes upon Monck's face, staring up at him with an expression half-questioning and half-expectant.

"You haven't swallowed that stuff yet," Monck reminded him. "Get rid of that first! What a child you are, Tommy! Why can't you behave yourself?"

Tommy's throat worked spasmodically, he made a mighty effort and succeeded in swallowing. Then, through lips that twitched as if he were going to cry, weakly he spoke.

"Hullo-hullo-you old bounder!"

"Hullo!" said Monck in stern rejoinder. "A nice game this! Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You ought to be. I'm furious with you. Do you know that?"

"Don't care-a damn," said Tommy, and forced his quivering lips to a smile.

"You will presently, you-puppy!" said Monck witheringly. "You're more bother than you're worth. Come on, Ralston! Give him another dose! Tommy, you hang on, or I'll know the reason why! There, you little ass! What's the matter with you?"

For Tommy's smile had crumpled into an expression of woe in spite of him. He turned his face into Monck's shoulder, piteously striving to hide his weakness.

"Feel-so beastly-bad," he whispered.

"All right, old fellow, all right! I know." Monck's hand was on his head, soothing, caressing, comforting. "Stick to it like a Briton! We'll pull you round. Think I don't understand? What? But you've got to do your bit, you know. You've got to be game. And here's your sister waiting to lend a hand, come all the way to this filthy hole on purpose. You are not going to let her see you go under. Come, Tommy lad!"

The tears overflowed down Stella's cheeks. She dared not show herself. But, fortunately for her, Tommy did not desire it. Monck's words took effect upon him, and he made a trembling effort to pull himself together.

"Don't let her see me-like this!" he murmured. "I'll be better presently. You tell her, old chap, and-I say-look after her, won't you?"

"All right, you cuckoo," said Monck.

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