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   Chapter 12 THE MORNING

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 8368

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Day broke upon a world of streaming rain. Stella sat before a meal spread in the dining-room and wanly watched it. Peter hovered near her; she had a suspicion that the meal was somehow of his contriving. But how he had arrived she had not the least idea and was too weary to ask.

Tommy had fallen into natural sleep, and Ralston had persuaded her to leave him in his care for a while, promising to send for her at once if occasion arose. She had left Monck there also, but she fancied Ralston did not mean to let him stay. Her thoughts dwelt oddly upon Monck. He had surprised her; more, in some fashion he had pierced straight through her armour of indifference. Wholly without intention he had imposed his personality upon her. He had made her recognize him as a force that counted. Though Major Ralston had been engaged upon the same task, she realized that it was his effort alone that had brought Tommy back. And-she saw it clearly-it was sheer love and nought else that had obtained the mastery. This man whom she had always regarded as a being apart, grimly self-contained, too ambitious to be capable of more than a passing fancy, had shown her something in his soul which she knew to be Divine. He was not, it seemed, so aloof as she had imagined him to be. The friendship between himself and Tommy was not the one-sided affair that she and a good many others had always believed it. He cared for Tommy, cared very deeply. Somehow that fact made a vast difference to her, such a difference as seemed to reach to the very centre of her being. She felt as if she had underrated something great.

The rush of the rain on the roof of the verandah seemed to make coherent thought impossible. She gazed at the meal before her and wondered if she could bring herself to partake of it. Peter had put everything ready to her hand, and in justice to him she felt as if she ought to make the attempt. But a leaden weariness was upon her. She felt more inclined to sink back in her chair and sleep.

There came a sound behind her, and she was aware of someone entering. She fancied it was Peter returned to mark her progress, and stretched her hand to the coffee-urn. But ere she touched it she knew that she was mistaken. She turned and saw Monck.

By the grey light of the morning his face startled her. She had never seen it look so haggard. But out of it the dark eyes shone, alert and indomitable, albeit she suspected that they had not slept for many hours.

He made her a brief bow. "May I join you?" he said.

His manner was formal, but she could not stand on her dignity with him at that moment. Impulsively, almost involuntarily it seemed to her later, she rose, offering him both her hands. "Captain Monck," she said, "you are-splendid!"

Words and action were alike wholly spontaneous. They were also wholly unexpected. She saw a strange look flash across his face. Just for a second he hesitated. Then he took her hands and held them fast.

"Ah-Stella!" he said.

With the name his eyes kindled. His weariness vanished as darkness vanishes before the glare of electricity. He drew her suddenly and swiftly to him.

For a few throbbing seconds Stella was so utterly amazed that she made no resistance. He astounded her at every turn, this man. And yet in some strange and vital fashion her moods responded to his. He was not beyond comprehension or even sympathy. But as she found his dark face close to hers and felt his eyes scorch her like a flame, expediency rather than dismay urged her to action. There was something so sublimely natural about him at that moment that she could not feel afraid.

She drew back from him gasping. "Oh please-please!" she said. "Captain Monck, let me go!"

He held her still, though he drew her no closer. "Must I?" he said. And in a lower voice, "Have you forgotten how once in this very room you told me-that I had come to you-too late? And-now!"

The last words seemed to vibrate through and through her. She quivered from head to foot. She could not meet the passion in his eyes, but desperately she strove to cope with it ere it mounted beyond her control.

"Ah no, I haven't forgotten," she said. "But I

was a good deal younger then. I didn't know much of life. I have changed-I have changed enormously."

"You have changed-in that respect?" he asked her, and she heard in his voice that note of stubbornness which she had heard on that night that seemed so long ago-the night before her marriage.

She freed one hand from his hold and set it pleadingly against his breast. "That is a difficult question to answer," she said. "But do you think a slave would willingly go back into servitude when once he has felt the joy of freedom?"

"Is that what marriage means to you?" he said.

She bent her head. "Yes."

But still he did not let her go. "Stella," he said, "I haven't changed since that night."

She trembled again, but she spoke no word, nor did she raise her eyes.

He went on slowly, quietly, almost on a note of fatalism. "It is beyond the bounds of possibility that I should change. I loved you then, I love you now. I shall go on loving you as long as I live. I never thought it possible that you could care for me-until you told me so. But I shall not ask you to marry me so long as the thought of marriage means slavery to you. All I ask is that you will not hold yourself back from loving me-that you will not be afraid to be true to your own heart. Is that too much?"

His voice was steady again. She raised her eyes and met his look. The passion had gone out of it, but the dominance remained. She thrilled again to the mastery that had held Tommy back from death.

For a moment she could not speak. Then, as he waited, she gathered her strength to answer. "I mean to be true," she said rather breathlessly. "But I-I value my freedom too much ever to marry again. Please, I want you to understand that. You mustn't think of me in that way. You mustn't encourage hopes that can never be fulfilled."

A faint gleam crossed his face. "That is my affair," he said.

"Oh, but I mean it." Quickly she broke in upon him. "I am in earnest. I am in earnest. It wouldn't be right of me to let you imagine-to let you think-" she faltered suddenly, for something obstructed her utterance. The next moment swiftly she covered her face. "My dear!" he said.

He led her back to the table and made her sit down. He knelt beside her, his arms comfortingly around her.

"I've made you cry," he said. "You're worn out. Forgive me! I'm a brute to worry you like this. You've had a rotten time of it, I know, I know. No, don't be afraid of me! I won't say another word. Just lean on me, that's all. I won't let you down, I swear."

She took him at his word for a space and leaned upon him; for she had no alternative. She was weary to the soul of her; her strength was gone.

But gradually his strength helped her to recover. She looked up at length with a quivering smile. "There! I am going to be sensible. You must be worn out too. I can see you are. Sit down, won't you, and let us forget this?"

He met her look steadily. "No, I can't forget," he said. "But I shan't pester you. I don't believe in pestering any one. I shouldn't have done it now, only-" he broke off faintly smiling-"it's all Tommy's fault, confound him!" he said, and rose, giving her shoulder a pat that was somehow more reassuring to her than any words.

She laughed rather tremulously. "Poor Tommy! Now please sit down and have a rational meal! You are looking positively gaunt. It will be Tommy's and my turn to nurse you next if you are not careful."

He pulled up a chair and seated himself. "What a pleasing suggestion! But I doubt if Tommy's assistance will be very valuable to any one for some little time to come. No milk in that coffee, please. I will have some brandy."

Looking back upon that early breakfast, Stella smiled to herself though not without misgiving. For somehow, in spite of what had preceded it, it was a very light-hearted affair. She had never seen Monck in so genial a mood. She had not believed him capable of it. For though he looked wretchedly ill, his spirits were those of a conqueror.

Doubtless he regarded the turn in Tommy's illness as a distinct and personal victory. But was that his only cause for triumph? She wished she knew.

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