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   Chapter 13 THE NIGHT-WATCH

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 20708

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

When Stella saw Tommy again, he greeted her with a smile of welcome that told her that for him the worst was over. He had returned. But his weakness was great, greater than he himself realized, and she very quickly comprehended the reason for Major Ralston's evident anxiety. Sickness was rife everywhere, and now that the most imminent danger was past he was able to spare but little time for Tommy's needs. He placed him in Stella's care with many repeated injunctions that she did her utmost to fulfil.

For the first two days Monck helped her. His management of Tommy was supremely arbitrary, and Tommy submitted himself with a meekness that sometimes struck Stella as excessive. But it was so evident that the boy loved to have his friend near him, whatever his mood, that she made no comments since Monck was not arbitrary with her. She saw but little of him after their early morning meal together, for when he could spare the time to be with Tommy, she took his advice and went to her room for the rest she so sorely needed.

She hoped that Monck rested too during the hours that she was on duty in the sick-room. She concluded that he did so, though his appearance gave small testimony to the truth of her supposition. Once or twice coming upon him suddenly she was positively startled by the haggardness of his look. But upon this also she made no comment. It seemed advisable to avoid all personal matters in her dealings with him. She was aware that he suffered no interference from Major Ralston whose time was in fact so fully occupied at the hospital and elsewhere that he was little likely to wish to add him to his sick list.

Tommy's recovery, however, was fairly rapid, and on the third night after her arrival she was able to lie down in his room and rest between her ministrations. Ralston professed himself well satisfied with his progress in the morning, and she looked forward to imparting this favourable report to Monck. But Monck did not make an appearance. She watched for him almost unconsciously all through the day, but he did not come. Tommy also watched for him, and finally concluded somewhat discontentedly that he had gone on some mission regarding which he had not deemed it advisable to inform them.

"He is like that," he told Stella, and for the first time he spoke almost disparagingly of his hero. "So beastly discreet. He never thinks any one can keep a secret besides himself."

"Ah well, never mind," Stella said. "We can do without him."

But Tommy had reached the stage when the smallest disappointment was a serious matter. He fretted and grew feverish over his friend's absence.

When Major Ralston saw him that evening he rated him soundly, and even, Stella thought, seemed inclined to blame her also for the set-back in his patient's condition.

"He must be kept quiet," he insisted. "It is absolutely essential, or we shall have the whole trouble over again. I shall have to give him a sedative and leave him to you. I can't possibly look in again to-night, so it will be useless to send for me. You will have to manage as best you can."

He departed, and Stella arranged to divide the night-watches with Peter the Great. She did not privately believe that there was much ground for alarm, but in view of the doctor's very emphatic words she decided to spend the first hours by Tommy's side. Peter would relieve her an hour after midnight, when at his earnest request she promised to go to her room and rest.

The sedative very speedily took effect upon Tommy and he slept calmly while she sat beside him with the light from the lamp turned upon her book. But though her eyes were upon the open page her attention was far from it. Her thoughts had wandered to Monck and dwelt persistently upon him. The memory of that last conversation she had had with Ralph Dacre would not be excluded from her brain. What was the meaning of this mysterious absence? What was he doing? She felt uneasy, even troubled. There was something about this Secret Service employment which made her shrink, though she felt that had their mutual relations been of the totally indifferent and casual order she would not have cared. It seemed to her well-nigh impossible to place any real confidence in a man who deliberately concealed so great a part of his existence. Her instinct was to trust him, but her reason forbade. She was beginning to ask herself if it would not be advisable to leave India just as soon as Tommy could spare her. It seemed madness to remain on if she desired to avoid any increase of intimacy with this man who had already so far overstepped the bounds of convention in his dealing with her.

And yet-in common honesty she had to admit it-she did not want to go. The attraction that held her was as yet too intangible to be definitely analyzed, but she could not deny its existence. She did not love the man-oh, surely she did not love him-for she did not want to marry him. She brought her feelings to that touchstone and it seemed that they were able to withstand the test. But neither did she want to cut herself finally adrift from all chance of contact with him. It would hurt her to go. Probably-almost certainly-she would wish herself back again. But, the question remained unanswered, ought she to stay? For the first time her treasured independence arose and mocked her. She had it in her heart to wish that the decision did not rest with herself.

It was at this point, while she was yet deep in her meditations, that a slight sound at the window made her look up. It was almost an instinctive movement on her part. She could not have said that she actually heard anything besides the falling rain which had died down to a soft patter among the trees in the compound. But something induced her took up, and so doing, she caught a glimpse of a figure on the verandah without that sent all the blood in her body racing to her heart. It was but a momentary glimpse. The next instant it was gone, gone like a shadow, so that she found herself asking breathlessly if it had ever been, or if by any means her imagination had tricked her. For in that fleeting second it seemed to her that the past had opened its gates to reveal to her a figure which of late had drifted into the back alleys of memory-the figure of the dreadful old native who, in some vague fashion, she had come to regard as the cause of her husband's death.

She had never seen him again since that awful morning when oblivion had caught her as it were on the very edge of the world, but for long after he had haunted her dreams so that the very thought of sleep had been abhorrent to her. But now-like the grim ghost of that strange life that she had so resolutely thrust behind her-the whole revolting personality of the man rushed vividly back upon her.

She sat as one petrified. Surely-surely-she had seen him in the flesh! It could not have been a dream. She was certain that she had not slept. And yet-how had that horrible old Kashmiri beggar come all these hundreds of miles from his native haunts? It was not likely. It was barely possible. And yet she had always been convinced that in some way he had known her husband beforehand. Had he come then of set intention to seek her out, perhaps to attempt to extract money from her?

She could not answer the question, and her whole being shrank from the thought of going out into the darkness to investigate. She could not bring herself to it. Actually she dared not.

Minutes passed. She sat still gazing and gazing at the blank darkness of the window. Nothing moved there. The wild beating of her heart died gradually down. Surely it had been a mistake after all! Surely she had fallen into a doze in the midst of her reverie and dreamed this hateful apparition with the gleaming eyes and famished face!

She exerted her self-command and turned at last to look at Tommy. He was sleeping peacefully with his head on his arm. He would sleep all night if undisturbed. She laid aside her book and softly rose.

Her first intention was to go to the door and see if Peter were in the passage. But the very fact of moving seemed to give her courage. The man's rest would be short enough; it seemed unkind to disturb him.

Resolutely she turned to the window, stifling all qualms. She would not be a wretched coward. She would see for herself.

The night was steaming hot, and there was a smell of mildew in the air. A swarm of mosquitoes buzzed in the glare thrown by the lamp with a shrill, attenuated sound like the skirl of far-away bagpipes. A creature with bat-like wings flapped with a monstrous ungainliness between the outer posts of the verandah. From across the compound an owl called on a weird note of defiance. And in the dim waste of distance beyond she heard the piercing cry of a jackal. But close at hand, so far as the rays of the lamp penetrated, she could discern nothing.

Stay! What was that? A bar of light from another lamp lay across the verandah, stretching out into the darkness. It came from the room next to the one in which she stood. Her heart gave a sudden hard throb. It came from Monck's room.

That meant-that meant-what did it mean? That Monck had returned at that unusual hour? Or that there really was a native intruder who had found the window unfastened and entered?

Again the impulse to retreat and call Peter to deal with the situation came upon her, but almost angrily she shook it off. She would see for herself first. If it were only Monck, then her fancy had indeed played her false and no one should know it. If it were any one else, it would be time enough then to return and raise the alarm.

So, reasoning with herself, seeking to reassure herself, crying shame on her fear, she stepped noiselessly forth into the verandah and slipped, silent as that shadow had been, through the intervening space of darkness to the open window of Monck's room.

She reached it, was blinded for a moment by the light that poured through it, then, recovering, peered in.

A man, dressed in pyjamas, stood facing her, so close to her that he seemed to be in the act of stepping forth. She recognized him in a second. It was Monck,-but Monck as she never before had seen him, Monck with eyes alight with fever and lips drawn back like the lips of a snarling animal. In his right hand he grip

ped a revolver.

He saw her as suddenly as she saw him, and a rapid change crossed his face. He reached out and caught her by the shoulder.

"Come in! Come in!" he said, his words rushing over each other in a confused jumble utterly unlike his usual incisive speech. "You're safe in here. I'll shoot the brute if he dares to come near you again."

She saw that he was not himself. The awful fire in his eyes alone would have told her that. But words and action so bewildered her that she yielded to the compelling grip. In a moment she was in the room, and he was closing and shuttering the window with fevered haste.

She stood and watched him, a cold sensation beginning to creep about her heart. When he turned round to her, she saw that he was smiling, a fierce, triumphant smile.

He threw down the revolver, and as he did so, she found her voice. "Captain Monck, what does that man want? What-what is he doing?"

He stood looking at her with that dreadful smile about his lips and the red fire leaping, leaping in his eyes. "Can't you guess what he wants?" he said. "He wants-you."

"Me?" She gazed back at him astounded. "But why-why? Does he want to get money out of me? Where has he gone?"

Monck laughed, a low, terrible laugh. "Never mind where he has gone! I've frightened him off, and I'll shoot him-I'll shoot him-if he comes back! You're mine now-not his. You were right to come to me, quite right. I was just coming to you. But this is better. No one can come between us now. I know how to protect my wife."

He reached out his hands to her as he ended. His eyes shocked her inexpressibly. They held a glare that was inhuman, almost devilish.

She drew back from him in open horror. "Captain Monck! I am not your wife! What can you be thinking of? You-you are not yourself."

She turned with the words, seeking the door that led into the passage. He made no attempt to check her. Instinct told her, even before she laid her hand upon it, that it was locked.

She turned back, facing him with all her courage. "Captain Monck, I command you to let me go!"

Clear and imperious her voice fell, but it had no more visible effect upon him than the drip of the rain outside. He came towards her swiftly, with the step of a conqueror, ignoring her words as though they had never been uttered.

"I know how to protect my wife," he reiterated. "I will shoot any man who tries to take you from me."

He reached her with the words, and for the first time she flinched, so terrible was his look. She shrank away from him till she stood against the closed door. Through lips that felt stiff and cold she forced her protest.

"Indeed-indeed-you don't know what you are doing. Open the door and-let me-go!"

Her voice sounded futile even to herself. Before she ceased to speak, his arms were holding her, his lips, fiercely passionate, were seeking hers.

She struggled to avoid them, but her strength was as a child's. He quelled her resistance with merciless force. He choked the cry she tried to utter with the fiery insistence of his kisses. He held her crushed against his heart, so overwhelming her with the volcanic fires of his passion that in the end she lay in his hold helpless and gasping, too shattered to oppose him further.

She scarcely knew when the fearful tempest began to abate. All sense of time and almost of place had left her. She was dizzy, quivering, on fire, wholly incapable of coherent thought, when at last it came to her that the storm was arrested.

She heard a voice above her, a strangely broken voice. "My God!" it said. "What-have I done?"

It sounded like the question of a man suddenly awaking from a wild dream. She felt the arms that held her relax their grip. She knew that he was looking at her with eyes that held once more the light of reason. And, oddly, that fact affected her rather with dismay than relief. Burning from head to foot, she turned her own away.

She felt his hand pass over her shamed and quivering face as though to assure himself that she was actually there in the flesh. And then abruptly-so abruptly that she tottered and almost fell-he set her free.

He turned from her. "God help me! I am mad!" he said.

She stood with throbbing pulses, gasping for breath, feeling as one who had passed through raging fires into a desert of smouldering ashes. She seemed to be seared from head to foot. The fiery torment of his kisses had left her tingling in every nerve.

He moved away to the table on which he had flung his revolver, and stood there with his back to her. He was swaying a little on his feet.

Without looking at her, he spoke, his voice shaky, wholly unfamiliar. "You had better go. I-I am not safe. This damned fever has got into my brain."

She leaned against the door in silence. Her physical strength was coming back to her, but yet she could not move, and she had no words to speak. He seemed to have reft from her every faculty of thought and feeling save a burning sense of shame. By his violence he had broken down all her defences. She seemed to have lost both the power and the will to resist. She remained speechless while the dreadful seconds crept away.

He turned round upon her at length suddenly, almost with a movement of exasperation. And then something that he saw checked him. He stood silent, as if not knowing how to proceed.

Across the room their eyes met and held for the passage of many throbbing seconds. Then slowly a change came over Monck. He turned back to the table and deliberately picked up the revolver that lay there.

She watched him fascinated. Over his shoulder he spoke. "You will think me mad. Perhaps it is the most charitable conclusion you could come to. But I fully realize that when a thing is beyond an apology, it is an insult to offer one. The key of the door is under the pillow on the bed. Perhaps you will not mind finding it for yourself."

He sat down with the words in a heavy, dogged fashion, holding the revolver dangling between his knees. There was grim despair in his attitude; his look was that of a man utterly spent. It came to Stella at that moment that the command of the situation had devolved upon her, and with it a heavier responsibility than she had ever before been called upon to bear.

She put her own weakness from her with a resolution born of expediency, for the need for strength was great. She crossed the room to the bed, felt for and found the key, returned to the door and inserted it in the lock. Then she paused.

He had not moved. He was not watching her. He sat as one sunk deep in dejection, bowed beneath a burden that crushed him to the earth. But there was even in his abasement a certain terrible patience that sent an icy misgiving to her heart. She did not dare to leave him so.

It needed all the strength she could muster to approach him, but she compelled herself at last. She came to him. She stood before him.

"Captain Monck!" she said.

Her voice sounded small and frightened even in her own ears. She clenched her hands with the effort to be strong.

He scarcely stirred. His eyes remained downcast. He spoke no word.

She bent a little. "Captain Monck, if you have fever, you had better go to bed."

He moved slightly, influenced possibly by the increasing steadiness of her voice. But still he did not look at her or speak.

She saw that his hold upon the revolver had tightened to a grip, and, prompted by an inner warning that she could not pause to question, she bent lower and laid her hand upon his arm. "Please give that to me!" she said.

He started at her touch; he almost recoiled. "Why?" he said.

His voice was harsh and strained, even savage. But the needed strength had come to Stella, and she did not flinch.

"You have no use for it just now," she said. "Please be sensible and let me have it!"

"Sensible!" he said.

His eyes sought hers suddenly, involuntarily, and she had a sense of shock which she was quick to control; for they held in their depths the torment of hell.

"You are wrong," he said, and the deadly intention of his voice made her quiver afresh. "I have a use for it. At least I shall have-presently. There are one or two things to be attended to first."

It was then that a strange and new authority came upon Stella, as if an unknown force had suddenly inspired her. She read his meaning beyond all doubting, and without an instant's hesitation she acted.

"Captain Monck," she said, "you have made a mistake. You have done nothing that is past forgiveness. You must take my word for that, for just now you are ill and not in a fit state to judge for yourself. Now please give me that thing, and let me do what I can to help you!"

Practical and matter-of-fact were her words. She marvelled at herself even as she stooped and laid a steady hand upon the weapon he held. Her action was purposeful, and he relinquished it. The misery in his eyes gave place to a dumb curiosity.

"Now," Stella said, "get to bed, and I will bring you some of Tommy's quinine."

She turned from him, revolver in hand, but paused and in a moment turned back.

"Captain Monck, you heard what I said, didn't you? You will go straight to bed?"

Her voice held a hint of pleading, despite its insistence. He straightened himself in his chair. He was still looking at her with an odd wonder in his eyes-wonder that was mixed with a very unusual touch of reverence.

"I will do-whatever you wish," he said.

"Thank you," said Stella. "Then please let me find you in bed when I come back!"

She turned once more to go, went to the door and opened it. From the threshold she glanced back.

He was on his feet, gazing after her with the eyes of a man in a trance.

She lifted her hand. "Now remember!" she said, and with that passed quietly out, closing the door behind her.

Her brain was in a seething turmoil and her heart was leaping within her like a wild thing suddenly caged. But, very strangely, all fear had departed from her.

Only a brief interval before, she had found herself wishing that the decision of her life's destiny had not rested entirely with herself. It seemed to her that a great revelation had been vouchsafed between the amazing present and those past moments of troubled meditation. And she knew now that it did not.

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