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   Chapter 14 SERVICE RENDERED

The Lamp in the Desert By Ethel M. Dell Characters: 16189

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The news that Monck was down with the fever brought both the Colonel and Major Ralston early to the bungalow on the following morning.

They found Stella and the ever-faithful Peter in charge of both patients. Tommy was better though weak. Monck was in a high fever and delirious.

Stella was in the latter's room, for he would not suffer her out of his sight. She alone seemed to have any power to control him, and Ralston noted the fact with astonishment.

"There's some magic about you," he observed in his blunt fashion. "Are you going to take on this job? It's no light one but you'll probably do it better than any one else."

It was a tacit invitation, and Stella knowing how widespread was the sickness that infected the station, accepted it without demur.

"It rather looks as if it were my job, doesn't it?" she said. "I am willing, anyway to do my best."

Ralston looked at her with a gleam of approval, but the Colonel drew her aside to remonstrate.

"It's not fit for you. You'll be ill yourself. If Ralston weren't nearly at his wit's end he'd never dream of allowing it."

But Stella heard the protest with a smile. "Believe me, I am only too glad to be able to do something useful for a change," she assured him. "As to being ill myself, I will promise not to behave so badly as that."

"You're a brick, my dear," said Colonel Mansfield. "I wish there were more like you. Mind you take plenty of quinine!" With which piece of fatherly advice he left her with the determination to keep an eye on her and see that Ralston did not work her too hard.

Stella, however, had no fears on her own account. She went to her task resolute and undismayed, feeling herself actually indispensable for almost the first time in her life. Her influence upon Monck was beyond dispute. She alone possessed the power to calm him in his wildest moments, and he never failed to recognize her or to control himself to a certain extent in her presence.

The attack was a sharp one, and for a while Ralston was more uneasy than he cared to admit. But Monck's constitution was a good one, and after three days of acute illness the fever began to subside. Tommy was by that time making good progress, and Stella, who till then had snatched her rest when and how she could, gave her charge into Peter's keeping and went to bed for the first time since her arrival at Kurrumpore.

Till she actually lay down she did not realize how utterly worn out she was, or how little the odd hours of sleep that she had been able to secure had sufficed her. But as she laid her head upon the pillow, slumber swept upon her on soundless wings. She slept almost before she had time to appreciate the exquisite comfort of complete repose.

That slumber of hers lasted for many hours. She had given Peter express injunctions to awake her in good time in the morning, and she rested secure in the confidence that he would obey her orders. But it was the light of advancing evening that filled the room when at last she opened her eyes.

There had come a break in the rain, and a bar of misty sunshine had penetrated a chink in the green blinds and lay golden across the Indian matting on the floor. She lay and gazed at it with a bewildered sense of uncertainty as to her whereabouts. She felt as if she had returned from a long journey, and for a time her mind dwelt hazily upon the Himalayan paradise from which she had been so summarily cast forth. Vague figures flitted to and fro through her brain till finally one in particular occupied the forefront of her thoughts. She found herself recalling every unpleasant detail of the old Kashmiri beggar who had lured Ralph Dacre from her side on that last fateful night. The old question arose within her and would not be stifled. Had the man murdered and robbed him ere flinging him down to the torrent that had swept his body away? The wonder tormented her as of old, but with renewed intensity. She had awaked with the conviction strong upon her that the man was not far away, that she had seen him recently, and that Everard Monck had seen him also.

That brought her thoughts very swiftly to the present, to Monck's illness and dependence upon her, and in a flash to the realization that she had spent nearly the whole day as well as the night in sleep. In keen dismay she started from her bed and began a rapid toilet.

A quarter of an hour later she heard Peter's low, discreet knock at the door, and bade him enter. He came in with a tea-tray, smiling upon her with such tender solicitude that she had it not in her heart to express any active annoyance with him.

"Oh, Peter, you should have called me hours ago!" was all she found to say.

He set down the tray with a deep salaam. "But the captain sahib would not permit me," he said.

"He is better?" Stella asked quickly.

"He is much better, my mem-sahib. The doctor sahib smiled upon him only this afternoon and told him he was a damn' fraud. So my mem-sahib may set her mind at rest."

Obviously the term constituted a high compliment in Peter's estimation and the evident satisfaction that it afforded to Stella seemed to confirm the impression. He retired looking as well pleased as Stella had ever seen him.

She finished dressing as speedily as possible, ate a hasty meal, and hastened to Tommy's room. To her surprise she found it empty, but as she turned on the threshold the sound of her brother's laugh came to her through the passage. Evidently Tommy was visiting his fellow sufferer.

With a touch of anxiety as to Monck's fitness to receive a visitor, she turned in the direction of the laugh. But at Monck's door she paused, constrained by something that checked her almost like a hand laid upon her. The blood ran up to her temples and beat through her brain. She found she could not enter.

As she stood there hesitating, Monck's voice came to her, quiet and rational. She could not hear what he said, but Tommy's more impetuous tones cutting in were clearly audible.

"Oh, rats, my dear fellow! Don't be so damn' modest! You're worth a score of Dacres and you bet she knows it."

Stella tingled from head to foot. In another moment she would have passed swiftly on, but even as the impulse came to her it was frustrated. The door in front of her suddenly opened, and she was face to face with Monck himself.

He stood leaning slightly on the handle of the door. He was draped in a long dressing-gown of Oriental silk that hung upon him dejectedly as if it yearned for a stouter tenant. In it he looked leaner and taller than he had ever seemed to her before. He had a cigarette between his lips, but this he removed with a flicker of humour as he observed her glance.

"Caught in the act," he remarked. "Please come in!"

Something that was very far from humour impelled Stella to say quickly, "I hope you don't imagine I was eavesdropping."

He looked sardonic for an instant. "No, I do not so far flatter myself," he said. "I was referring to my cigarette."

She entered, striving for dignity. Then as his attitude caught her attention she forgot herself and turned upon him in genuine dismay. "What are you doing out of bed? You know you are not fit for it. Oh, how wrong of you! Take my arm!"

He transferred his hand from the door to her shoulder, and she felt it tremble though his hold was strong.

"May I not sit up to tea with you, nurse sahib?" he suggested, as she piloted him firmly to the bedside.

"Of course not," she made answer. The consciousness of his weakness had fully restored her confidence and her authority. "Besides, I have had mine. Tommy, you too! It is too bad, I shall never dare to close my eyes again."

At this point Monck laughed so suddenly and boyishly that she found it utterly impossible to continue her reproaches. He humbly apologized as he subsided upon the bed, and turning to Tommy who, fully dressed, was reclining at his ease in a deck-chair by its side said with a smile, "You get back to your own compartment, my son. It isn't good for me to have two people in the room with me

at the same time. And your sister wants to take my pulse undisturbed."

"Or listen to your heart?" suggested Tommy irreverently as he rose.

"Turn him out!" said Monck, leaning luxuriously upon the pillows that Stella arranged for him.

Tommy laughed as he sauntered away, pulling the door carelessly after him but recalled by Monck to shut it.

A sudden silence followed his departure. Stella was at the window, looping back the curtains. The vague sunlight still smote across the dripping compound; the whole plain was smoking like a mighty cauldron. Stella finished her task and stood still.

Across the silence came Monck's voice. "Aren't you going to give me my medicine?"

She turned slowly round. "I think you are nearly equal to doctoring yourself now," she said.

He was lying raised on his elbow, his eyes, intent and searching, fixed upon her. Abruptly, in a different tone, he spoke. "In other words, quit fooling and play the game!" he said. "All right, I will-to the best of my ability. First of all, may I tell you something that Ralston said to me this morning?"

"Certainly." Stella's voice sounded constrained and formal. She remained with her back to the window; for some reason she did not want him to see her face too clearly.

"It was only this," said Monck. "He said that I had you to thank for pulling me through this business, that but for you I should probably have gone under. Ralston isn't given to saying that sort of thing. So-if you will allow me-I should like to thank you for the trouble you have taken and for the service rendered."

"Please don't!" Stella said. "After all, it was no more than you did for Tommy, nor so much." She spoke nervously, avoiding his look.

The shadow of a smile crossed Monck's face. "I chance to be rather fond of Tommy," he said, "so my motive was more or less a selfish one. But you had not that incentive, so I should be all the more grateful. I am afraid I have given you a lot of trouble. Have you found me very difficult to manage?"

He put the question suddenly, almost imperiously. Stella was conscious of a momentary surprise. There was something in the tone rather than the words that puzzled her. She hesitated over her reply.

"You have?" said Monck. "That means I have been very unruly. Do you mind telling me what happened on the night I was taken ill?"

She felt a burning blush rush up to her face and neck before she could check it. It was impossible to attempt to hide her distress from him. She forced herself to speak before it overwhelmed her. "I would rather not discuss it or think of it. You were not yourself, and I-and I-"

"And you?" said Monck, his voice suddenly sunk very low.

She commanded herself with a supreme effort. "I wish to forget it," she said with firmness.

He was silent for a moment or two. She began to wonder if it would be possible to make her escape before he could pursue the subject further. And then he spoke, and she knew that she must remain.

"You are very generous," he said, "more generous than I deserve. Will it help matters at all if I tell you that I would give all I have to be able to forget it too, or to believe that the thing I remember was just one of the wild delusions of my brain?"

His voice was deep and sincere. In spite of herself she was moved by it. She came forward to his side. "The past is past," she said, and gave him her hand.

He took it and held it, looking at her in his straight, inscrutable way. "True, most gracious!" he said. "But I haven't quite done with it yet. Will you hear me a moment longer? You have of your goodness pardoned my outrageous behaviour, so I make no further allusion to that, except to tell you that I had been tempted to try a native drug which in its effects was worse than the fever pure and simple. But there is one point which only you can make clear. How was it you came to seek me out that night?"

His grasp upon her hand was reassuring though she felt the quiver of physical weakness in its hold. It was the grasp of a friend, and her embarrassment began to fall away from her.

"I came," she said, "because I had been startled. I had no idea you were anywhere near. I was really investigating the verandah because of-of something I had seen, when the light from this window attracted me. I thought possibly someone had broken in."

"Will you tell me what startled you?" Monck said.

She looked at him. "It was a man-an old native beggar. I only saw him for a moment. I was in Tommy's room, and he came and looked in at me. You-you must have seen him too. You were talking very excitedly about him. You threatened to shoot him."

"Was that how you came to deprive me of my revolver?" questioned Monck.

She coloured again vividly. "No, I thought you were going to shoot yourself. I will give it back to you presently."

"When you consider that I can be safely trusted with it?" he suggested, with his brief smile. "But tell me some more about this mysterious old beggar of yours! What was he like?"

She hesitated momentarily. "I only had a very fleeting glimpse of him. I can't tell you what he was really like. But-he reminded me of someone I never want to think of or suffer myself to think of again if I can help it."

"Who?" said Monck.

His voice was quiet, but it held insistence. She felt as if his eyes pierced her, compelling her reply.

"A horrible old native-a positive nightmare of a man-whom I shall always regard as in some way the cause of my husband's death."

In the pause that followed her words, Monck's hand left hers. He lay still looking at her, but with that steely intentness that told her nothing. She could not have said whether he were vitally interested in the matter or not when he spoke again.

"You think that he was murdered then?"

A sharp shudder went through her. "I am very nearly convinced of it," she said. "But I shall never know for certain now."

"And you imagine that the murderer can have followed you here?" he pursued.

"No! Oh no!" Hastily she made answer. "It is ridiculous of course. He would never be such a fool as to do that. It was only my imagination. I saw the figure at the window and was reminded of him."

"Are you sure the figure at the window was not imagination too?" said Monck. "Forgive my asking! Such things have happened."

"Oh, I know," Stella said. "It is a question I have been asking myself ever since. But, you know-" she smiled faintly-"I had no fever that night. Besides, I fancy you saw him too."

His smile met hers. "I saw many things that night as they were not. And you also were overwrought and very tired. Perhaps you had had an exciting supper!"

She saw that he meant to turn the subject away from her husband's death, and a little thrill of gratitude went through her. He had seen how reluctant she was to speak of it. She followed his lead with relief.

"Perhaps-perhaps," she said. "We will say so anyhow. And now, do you know, I think you had better have your tea and rest. You have done a lot of talking, and you will be getting feverish again if I let you go on. I will send Peter in with it."

He raised one eyebrow with a wry expression. "Must it be Peter?" he said.

She relented. "I will bring it myself if you will promise not to talk."

"Ah!" he said. "And if I promise that-will you promise me one thing too?"

She paused. "What is that?"

His eyes met hers, direct but baffling. "Not. to run away from me," he said.

The quick blood mounted again in her face. She stood silent.

He lifted an urgent hand. "Stella, in heaven's name, don't be afraid of me!"

She laid her hand again in his. She could not do otherwise. She wanted to beg him to say nothing further, to let her go in peace. But no words would come. She stood before him mute.

And-perhaps he knew what was in her mind-Monck was silent also after that single earnest appeal of his. He held her hand for a few seconds, and then very quietly let it go. She knew by his action that he would respect her wish for the time at least and say no more.

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